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New coronavirus mutation strain could threaten vaccine development

Published Apr 14th, 2020 11:13AM EDT
Coronavirus India
Image: Deliris/Shutterstock

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  • A novel coronavirus study says a strain of the virus from India manifested the first meaningful mutation that could hinder vaccine research.
  • Other scientists who have been tracking the genetic changes of the virus that causes COVID-19 previously said mutations are minimal, suggesting a vaccine could have long-lasting effects as a result.
  • If confirmed, the new findings might threaten some of the vaccine candidates in development.
  • Visit BGR’s homepage for more stories.

The race to acquire COVID-19 immunity will have two separate phases. The first and simplest one is to survive infection with the novel coronavirus strain. You will get immunity, although it’s unclear how long it will last. If you develop a robust response, you could even donate plasma so that others can be treated with it. Vaccines won’t be ready for mass deployment for up to 18 months, even though no less than 70 candidates are already in testing. That number is reassuring, as it seems that plenty of researchers think they can beat this disease with vaccines.

Moreover, scientists who have been tracking the mutation of the novel coronavirus have said that the current evolution of the virus is promising. A vaccine will have long-lasting effects if mutations aren’t significant. But new research has emerged out of India that says the novel coronavirus has already developed a mutation so severe that it could hinder some of the existing vaccine work.

Researchers from Australia and Taiwan explained in a non-peer reviewed study (via South China Morning Post) that a coronavirus strain isolated in India manifested a mutation in the part of the spike protein that lets the virus hook up to cells.

“The observation of this study raised the alarm that Sars-CoV-2 mutation with varied epitope [something an antibody attaches itself to] profile could arise at any time,” the researchers said. “[This] means current vaccine development against Sars-CoV-2 is at great risk of becoming futile.”

The coronavirus strain was sampled from a patient in Kerala as early as January, but it was only sequenced last month, which is odd, considering that the coronavirus genome was sequenced months ago, and is what vaccine developers have been using in their research. The patient was a medical student returning from Wuhan, but the strain doesn’t appear to be closely related to others identified in the same region, which is where the first COVID-19 outbreak occurred.

Scientists have observed several mutations so far, but none of them have been so serious as the one in this study. They say the mutation occurred in the spike protein’s receptor-binding domain (RBD), which was not found in other SARS-CoV-2 variants across the globe. The mutation removed a hydrogen bond from the spike protein, which makes the virus less likely to bind to ACE2 receptors found in lung tissue and other organs.

Vaccines targeting the spike protein might not work in patients manifesting similar COVID-19 mutations.

As with other COVID-19 studies, this one will have to be reviewed and confirmed by other scientists. But because it’s out there, the labs that are already working on vaccines will certainly take the study into account. The Morning Post also notes that a technical error during the sequencing process might be responsible for the error.

In a worst-case scenario where COVID-19 ends up mutating as often as the flu, researchers might have to be ready to issue new vaccines on a regular basis to keep up with the genetic changes.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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