Research has revealed how the SARS-CoV-2 virus has mutated. Illustration: Handout

It is a silent, microscopic enemy that attacks cell structures in the human body.

But now the SARS-CoV-2 virus could have evolved into a more virulent strain since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan, threatening research on a global-wide vaccine.

In a report released by the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States, scientists discovered that a new variant of the coronavirus that appeared in Europe back in February quickly became the “dominate form.”

Significantly, it infected far more people than the “earlier strains” that came out of China, the study claimed. Within weeks, it was the only variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in certain infected countries before “migrating” to the east coast of the US.

“The story is worrying, as we see a mutated form of the virus very rapidly emerging, and over the month of March becoming the dominant pandemic form,” team leader Bette Korber, a computational biologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, wrote on Facebook.

Last week, the paper was published on BioRxiv, a website used by scientists before the findings are peer-reviewed. 

Researchers from Los Alamos and Duke University in the US were involved in the project along with the University of Sheffield, the Sheffield Teaching Hospital and the NHS Foundation in the United Kingdom.

They analyzed more than 6,000 novel coronavirus sequences across the world from the data bank of the Global Initiative for Sharing All Influenza Data, a non-profit organization in Germany.

Up to 14 “mutations” were discovered, which may render future vaccines ineffective if they can only combat earlier strains of the Covid-19 disease.

“Our motivation was to identify mutations that might be of potential concern in the SARS-CoV-2 Spike [the protein on its surface that it uses to recognize host cells] as an early warning system for consideration as vaccine studies progress … [But] we did not anticipate such dramatic results so early in the pandemic,” the report stated.

So far, more than 3.8 million people have been infected globally with the death toll edging past 265,000. 

Parts of Europe have suffered the brunt of the outbreak with the UK reporting more than 201,000 infections and 30,000 fatalities. Italy has close to 215,000 infections and more than 29,000 deaths followed by Spain and France.

In the US, more than 1.26 million people have been infected with the death toll standing at more than 74,000.

China’s official figures are minuscule in comparison. Up to May 6, infected cases were 82,885 with 4,633 deaths in a population of 1.39 billion. Outside the initial epicenter of Wuhan and the broader Hubei province, there were roughly 15,000 infected cases.

Read: How China hid ‘tens of thousands’ of virus deaths

Read: Inside Wuhan’s secretive National Biosafety Lab

The numbers alone appear to add credence to the Los Alamos study. But other academics are not so sure.

“The only lineages you’ll see are those that got out, which include the ones with this mutation,” Bill Hanage, of Harvard, who studies pathogen evolution, told The Atlantic magazine.

Still, a study of samples from more than 7,500 people infected with Covid-19 found almost 200 recurrent genetic mutations. 

Scientists at the University College London’s Genetics Institute also concluded that the global spread of the virus started earlier after surfacing in China. They suggested the timeline began between October and December of 2019.

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“Phylogenetic estimates support that the pandemic started sometime around October 6, 2019, to December 11, 2019, which corresponds to the time of the host jump into humans,” the research team, which was co-led by Francois Balloux, wrote in a paper published in the Infection, Genetics and Evolution journal.

“All viruses naturally mutate. Mutations in themselves are not a bad thing and there is nothing to suggest SARS-CoV-2 is mutating faster or slower than expected,” Balloux said, as quoted in media reports. “So far, we cannot say whether SARS-CoV-2 is becoming more or less lethal and contagious.”

Yet to complicate an already complex picture, researchers at Cambridge University in the UK last month produced a “snapshot” of the pandemic’s origins. 

By analyzing the first 160 complete virus genomes to be sequenced from human patients, scientists have mapped the original spread of the new coronavirus through its mutations, the study pointed out.

“There are too many rapid mutations to neatly trace a SARS-CoV-2 family tree. We used a mathematical network algorithm to visualize all the plausible trees simultaneously,” Dr Peter Forster, a geneticist and lead author from Cambridge University, said.  

“These techniques are mostly known for mapping the movements of prehistoric human populations through DNA. We think this is one of the first times they have been used to trace the infection routes of a coronavirus like Covid-19,” he added.

The report also stressed:

“Forster and colleagues found that the closest type of SARS-CoV-2 to the one discovered in bats – type ‘A,’ the “original human virus genome – was present in Wuhan, but surprisingly was not the city’s predominant virus type. Versions of ‘A’ were seen in Chinese individuals, and Americans reported to have lived in Wuhan, and mutated versions of ‘A’ were found in patients from the US and Australia.

“Wuhan’s major virus type, ‘B,’ was prevalent in patients from across East Asia. However, the variant didn’t travel much beyond the region without further mutations – implying a ‘founder event’ in Wuhan, or ‘resistance’ against this type of coronavirus outside East Asia, say researchers.

“The ‘C’ variant is the major European type, found in early patients from France, Italy, Sweden and England. It is absent from the study’s Chinese mainland sample, but seen in Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea.”

Cambridge University then made it clear that it would be “a misinterpretation” of the “research to suggest that the novel coronavirus originated outside China.”

Already there are about 76 “vaccine candidates” under development around the world, according to Science. “But public health officials have cautioned that from start to finish, it takes at least one year, and more likely 18 months, to prove whether a candidate is safe and effective. And that’s if no problems surface,” the leading source for scientific, technical and medical research said.

There are also other factors at play. A raft of research has highlighted the challenges in finding an antidote to the virus.  

“We cannot afford to be blindsided as we move vaccines and antibodies into clinical testing,” Korber, of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, wrote on Facebook. “Please be encouraged by knowing the global scientific community is on this, and we are cooperating with each other in ways I have never seen … in my 30 years as a scientist.”

But then, this is a microscopic enemy that has caused a catastrophic world event, infecting the very foundations of the global community.