A group of researchers created a tool to monitor and predict mutations of SARS-CoV-2. The tool could be significant in optimizing COVID-19 drug or vaccine designs.
The innovative tool to counter mutations of SARS-CoV-2 was developed by researchers at the University of Melbourne, a public research university in Australia. The tool called COVID-3D could examine various aspects of the coronavirus. It could be used to further improve the efficacy of COVID-19 drugs and vaccines. However, it is not a genetic technology but a comprehensive monitoring instrument for the pathogen. They published their findings in the journal Nature Genetics.
The Number of COVID-19 Studies in Progress
Even though there are several experimental vaccines for COVID-19, studies to explore other avenues are ongoing to unlock more insights in SARS-CoV-2. Some are focused on drugs and therapies, while others are centered around chemicals that can neutralize or kill the virus in or out of the human body. These studies are happening across the globe to better understand and fight the pandemic. Success in these studies may also help control future pandemics with similar mechanics to the current one.
According to Statista, a German portal for statistics, a total of 3,185 studies including clinical trials were registered to ClinicalTrials.gov, as of August 30, 2020. Out of those studies, 1,179 were in Europe, 823 in North America, 180 in the Middle East, 180 in East Asia, 155 in Africa, 153 in South America, 68 in South Asia, 47 in Southeast Asia, 55 in North Asia, 21 in the Pacifica, and 10 in Central America. The studies were focused on COVID-19 research, whether for therapeutic purposes or not.
Meanwhile, another survey from August 20 to 26, 2020 among 1,601 respondents aged 18 and older showed the percentage who would be ready to get a COVID-19 vaccine if it is free and voluntary. About 38% said they would be ready to be vaccinated against COVID-19. But 54% said they would not be ready to receive the vaccine. Around 2% said they were against injections and vaccinations in general, while 6% could not provide an answer.
Right now, a COVID-19 treatment or vaccine is the best solution to effectively control community transmission. But aside from the unwillingness of many people to be vaccinated, there is a concern in the potential of SARS-CoV-2 to mutate. Hopefully, the first fully approved vaccine for the disease will not encounter a critical mutation of the coronavirus.
COVID-3D Tool to Outsmart SARS-CoV-2
One of the secret weapons of viruses is the ability to mutate. This is how a virus jumps between species, from animals to humans and vice versa. However, the mutation rate varies between viruses and other microorganisms. The rate can be hastened or slowed by certain factors, including human intervention. Sometimes, a mutation can be detrimental to the pathogen that lowers its infectivity or fatality rate.
Back in 2014, the American news website Vox highlighted the fastest mutating type of viruses. In general, both bacteria and viruses can develop when exposed to environmental forces. Bacteria could evolve at a specific rate while viruses could mutate as they infected a living organism. An image from a study published in Nature Communications showed that RNA viruses have the highest mutation rate across different pathogens. RNA viruses include the human immunodeficiency virus or HIV.
It was followed by ulcer-causing bacteria called H. pylori during the acute infection phase, ssDNA viruses, several bacteria, dsDNA viruses, and eukaryotes, which include humans. Special mentions of fast-mutating viruses were influenza and coronaviruses. While viruses like measles were unlikely to mutate due to having stable structures. Stable viruses would make vaccines last for years.
Humans can help bacteria evolve and viruses mutate. Once these microbes circulate among humans, the human body becomes their environment. This allows bacteria and viruses to learn from people to adapt quickly. Because people have other things to do, microbes have more time to figure humans than the other way around.
At the University of Melbourne, researchers developed the COVID-3D to help experts around the globe to monitor the genomic changes of SARS-CoV-2. This tool could help drug and vaccine makers effectively avoid or overcome mutations. Experts could harness the genomic and protein details to increase the potency of COVID-19 drugs.
"In the context of therapeutic drug design and discovery, these mutations, and the patterns by which they accumulate within the virus' protein structures, can affect the ability of vaccines and drugs to bind the virus, or to create a specific immune response against it. Because of this, scientists must not only try to control the virus, but outsmart it by predicting how it will change over time," said David Ascher, the lead author of the study and associate professor at Melbourne University.
The tool was developed using the genome sequencing data of more than 120,000 SARS-CoV-2 samples. These samples were obtained from those who have been infected worldwide. The data included the points of mutations. Within a short time, the coronavirus already mutated multiple times based on changes across its genes. Most of these mutations remained irrelevant in the efficacy of experimental therapies and vaccines.
Researchers analyzed and tested the effects of the mutations on their protein structure via computer simulations. The output data was used to calculate all the biological effects of each possible mutation within the viral genome. To predict future mutations, they analyzed other coronaviruses related to SARS-CoV-2 and Bat RaTG13. Results showed that possible future mutations were likely natural errors in the cell replication process.
The natural errors could enhance SARS-CoV-2's infectivity, survivability, and virulence. Luckily, the analysis revealed that the novel coronavirus mutates at a slower rate, compared to other known viruses. They interpreted that the mutation rate of the coronavirus is having two new changes within its genome per month. That speed could let experts make changes in any drug or vaccine they are planning to create.
As more samples from patients are confirmed by specialized laboratories, the tool gets new information about the changes in SARS-CoV-2. This can be helpful from vaccine development to disease management in communities. If a mutation resulted in higher infectivity, governments will be alerted to take further precautions.