KEY POINTS

  • A team of researchers from Taiwan and Australia found evidence of new coronavirus mutation
  • It could potentially affect current vaccine developments
  • Other experts, however, have yet to peer-review the findings

As scientists are racing to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, a new study has confirmed a significant novel coronavirus mutation that may render current vaccine developments "futile." 

The research team from the National Changhua University of Education in Taiwan and Murdoch University in Australia said that the new coronavirus mutation showed changes in the spike protein that enables the virus to bind to the enzymes found in the lungs. 

Scientists have been studying this receptor and looking into the right antibodies to counter its effects. However, the unexpected structural change "raises the alarm that the ongoing vaccine development may become futile in future epidemic if more mutations were identified," the experts wrote in their paper published on biorxiv.org.

vaccine-4946480_960_720 Scientists across the world are racing to find the right vaccine that will work against the novel coronavirus or COVID-19. Photo: Pixabay

Experts discovered the new coronavirus mutation from a patient in India who was sampled in early January. The patient is a medical student who had been to Wuhan, but the strain was not similar to any of the variants from China. 

The research team released this sample's full genome sequence in March. The experts, however, also confirmed that the new coronavirus mutation rate was slow. 

"We confirmed that SARS-CoV-2 has a relatively low mutation rate but also proved that novel mutation with varied virulence and immune characteristics have already emerged,” the researchers said.  

The study has yet to be peer-reviewed; thus, the team's findings might still be negated by other experts. 

Benjamin Neuman of the Texas A&M University Biological Sciences, who is not part of the study, said that mutations in the virus might require vaccines to be tested and updated periodically, similar to influenza virus vaccines.

"The influenza virus mutates constantly, and at about the same rate as coronavirus, but we are able to successfully vaccinate against this moving target," Neuman said. 

Immunology lecturer Jenna Macciochi, who works for the University of Sussex, also said that current vaccine developments are not necessarily affected by the discovered mutation.  

"Small mutations would be expected with any virus," Macciochi said. "The emerged mutation in this report appears to reduce binding to ACE2 meaning less virulence which could potentially mean less ability to infect."