Scientists identify 'more aggressive' coronavirus strain

·3-min read

As scientists around the world work to better understand the COVID-19 disease, scientists in China believe they have discovered a mutation in coronavirus that is fuelling the global outbreak.

The deadly coronavirus has mutated into two strains, one of which appears to be far more aggressive.

That’s the preliminary findings from researchers at Peking University's School of Life Sciences and the Institute Pasteur of Shanghai in China, in a paper examining the “origin and continuing evolution” of what’s been officially dubbed SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2).

“Population genetic analyses of 103 SARS-CoV-2 genomes indicated that these viruses evolved into two major types,” researchers wrote in the paper published in the National Science Review.

According to the study, scientists discovered the virus evolved into two major lineages, dubbed the ‘S’ and ‘L’ types.

Chinese meat vendors wear protective masks as they wait for customers at a local market in Beijing, China. Source: Getty
Chinese meat vendors wear protective masks as they wait for customers at a local market in Beijing, China. Source: Getty

The S type is older, and thus considered the “ancestral version”, but accounted for about 30 per cent of cases. The L type, however, is more prevalent and accounts for about of 70 per cent of cases, researchers said.

“The L type was more prevalent in the early stages of the outbreak in Wuhan, the frequency of the L type decreased after early January 2020,” researchers noted.

“Human intervention may have placed more severe selective pressure on the L type, which might be more aggressive and spread more quickly.”

The study sheds some light on how COVID-19 is evolving and suggests that more mutations could be possible in the future – a situation that could hinder efforts to find a vaccine.

According to the UK’s The Telegraph, genetic analysis of a man in the US who tested positive on January 21 showed it was possible to be infected with both types.

However the researchers were quick to note that more research is needed to understand the significance of the study’s findings and how SARS-CoV-2 differs from other coronaviruses.

“These findings strongly support an urgent need for further immediate, comprehensive studies that combine genomic data, epidemiological data, and chart records of the clinical symptoms of patients with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19),” they wrote.

COVID-19 ‘so effective at transmitting’

The discovery of what appears to be a mutation in the virus comes as cases continue to spread across the world, including Australia with new cases announced in NSW, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia on Thursday.

Professor Ian Mackay, virologist and associate professor at The University of Queensland, says it’s clear the COVID-19 disease isn’t going away any time soon.

“We’ll just see this virus bounce around, looking for new hosts,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

“I think what happens is the virus keeps spreading in countries, there are more and more hotspots outside of China,” he said.

“We’re seeing exponential growth in a few countries around Europe, so it does look like it’s taking off.

“This virus, I think, will stay with us because it’s so effective at transmitting – like the other four human coronaviruses we live with right now,” he said.

“Those cause relatively mild disease at the moment because we’ve lived with them for so long... this virus may settle down to be more like them, or it may not.”

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