Viruses are continuously changing as a result of genetic selection, and they undergo subtle genetic changes through mutation and major genetic changes . The mutation occurs when an error is incorporated in the viral genome and can change the whole structure or nature of the virus.
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A virus mutation can occur due to three main reasons and they are by the effects of physical mutagens such as UV light, x-rays on nucleic acids (a complex organic substance present in living cells, especially DNA or RNA), by the natural behaviour of the bases that make up nucleic acids, and through errors of the enzymes that replicate the nucleic acids .
17 years ago, in 2003, WHO reported a SARS outbreak which spread to more than two dozen countries in Europe, North America, South America, and Asia . The virus had spread to over 8,000 people worldwide and killed almost 800. However, the coronavirus has been proven to be more dangerous and easily transmittable than the SARS outbreak.
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However, studies positively point out that since SARS, the advances in technology has indeed aided in a better understanding of the virus and its changes. The new coronavirus is an RNA virus, that is, a strain that when upon coming in contact with a host, can make new copies which can go on to infect other cells .
The researchers also point out that RNA viruses, like the flu and measles, are more prone to changes and mutations compared with DNA viruses, where the new copy is not entirely different from that of the original coronavirus .
"The sequences of the original isolates from China are very close to those in viruses circulating in the U.S. and the rest of the world" .
Viral mutations are a normal part of a virus's evolution and can alter the severity of the disease they cause - causing an alarm among health experts in the event of the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers pointed out that the mutation in the virus is rather unique and may pose challenges to the vaccine development as well as the current understanding of the severity of the coronavirus disease .
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Among the many virus strain collected, one of the viruses had a unique mutation that involved the deletion of 81 letters from its genome - which translates to the common understanding that the virus may have an increased selective advantage in the mid to long term or that it could have a reduced short-term selective advantage .
It has been brought to attention that the new strain is responsible for the majority of infections reported around the world since mid-March . The group of researchers also said that the mutations have not made the virus deadlier - but there is an extremely rare chance that the virus could mutate to be more aggressive.
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But considering that the coronavirus, as aforementioned is an RNA virus, it is more likely to mutate into a weaker version . "Nearly all mutations will make some part of the virus work less well than before. The most common thing is for mutations to appear and die out again quickly" .
A recent analysis carried out by a group of researchers in India claims that nearly 50 per cent of the coronavirus strains have the new mutation - a mutation called D614G in the spike protein, which is stated as the major surface protein the SARS-CoV-2 virus uses to invade human cells .
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"The mutation Spike D614G is of urgent concern; it began spreading in Europe in early February, and when introduced to new regions it rapidly becomes the dominant form" .
According to current understandings, the mutation is most likely not to interfere with the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine development process. The researchers add that this, in fact, could act as a positive one because "an older strain of a virus will preserve enough features that it will provide immunity against a whole group of variants and this could make it possible to make an effective COVID-19 vaccine that will provide long-lasting immunity against this particular virus just as we have for many other viruses that do not change rapidly" .
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This is not the first time the coronavirus has mutated and the current mutation caught the attention of the researchers because of its similarities to the 2003 SARS outbreak. Currently, researchers are trying to understand how the variation behaves in the body because it is unclear whether the new mutation infects and sickens people differently. However, the researchers are extensively working towards it and asserts that more data is needed to understand the implications of the new mutations.
On December 2019, Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported a cluster of cases of pneumonia which was later identified as the novel coronavirus. In May, the advent of COVID-19 is in the sixth month, which has caused 276, 690 deaths globally and 4,034,567 positive cases .
Researchers and health experts around the globe are ardently focused on studying the novel coronavirus, where new findings and understanding help in the better management of the diseases, and also pave way for a possible effective vaccine, as soon as possible.
With new developments and study findings being published each day about the COVID-19 virus, a recent study has reported SARS-CoV-2 mutation.