The new coronavirus has spread widely around the world since the end of 2019 and a single “zero patient” cannot be found in most countries, according to a latest study from the Institute of Genetics at University College of London (UCL).
The study identified 198 recurrent genetic mutations in the virus by screening the genomes of more than 7,500 viruses from infected patients worldwide, UCL said in a statement on Wednesday.
The recurrent mutations detected could indicate a continuous adaptation of the virus to its new human host, according to the study published in the journal Infection, Genetics and Evolution.
“The results add to a growing body of evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 (new coronavirus) viruses have shared a common ancestor since late 2019, suggesting that this is when the virus is transmitted from a previous animal host to humans, “the statement said.
“This means that the virus causing COVID-19 is very unlikely to have circulated in humans for a long time before being detected for the first time,” he added.
The study highlights how the virus can adapt and evolve in its human hosts, providing clues to “direct drug and vaccine design”.
Some parts of the virus genome had very few mutations because those identified were “not evenly distributed there”. The researchers said these invariant parts of the virus could be better targets for the development of drugs and vaccines.
“A major challenge in defeating viruses is that a vaccine or drug may not work if the virus has mutated. If we focus on the parts of the virus that are less likely to mutate, we have better chances of developing drugs that will be effective in the long term, “said lead co-author Professor François Balloux of UCL in the release.
“We need to develop drugs and vaccines that cannot be easily eluded by the virus,” he added.