Coronavirus Genes Tell the Story!

By Shlomo Maital

COVID-19 genome                                           Horseshoe bat

     A saying in the Jewish Talmud: Know where you’ve come from, know where you are going. Based on a New York Times article on the virus genome:

   Where did the novel coronavirus come from in the first place?

     From a Chinese horseshoe bat…but “researchers found the virus infecting humans now split off from the bat decades ago and gained some unique mutations”. (Maciej Boni, Penn State U, using sophisticated computer programs analyzing genetic structures).

   How do viruses mutate?

   Sometimes two different coronaviruses enter a single cell, and the resulting copy made by the cell’s DNA is a combination of the two..a new mutation.

     How different are the various coronaviruses?

       In January a team of Chinese and Australian researchers published the first genome of the new virus. (Kudos to them! They distributed it instantly and widely!). Since then researchers worldwide have sequenced the genes of 3,000 coronaviruses. Some are identical, some are distinctive mutations.

       Implication: For many years we will need to track this virus, lest it mutate viciously and ‘successfully’.

     Where can researchers find the data on the virus genomes?

     Look up the online database GISAID. Evolution experts are analyzing how the virus evolves, in a project called Nextstrain, and constantly update the virus ‘family tree’.

      What did genome researchers learn about the spread of coronavirus in the US?

      Dr. Trevor Bedford, U. of Washington, and team found that it was not spreading in the US “in December”. President Trump poured scorn on those warning about the spreading virus, calling it a ‘hoax’. Had quarantines been imposed earlier, many of the deaths could have been prevented.   “A virus identified in a patient in late February (in New York) had mutation shared by one identified in Washington (state) on Jan. 20”. The current New York pandemic, deadly, could have been stopped if the experts’ warnings had been heeded. But “climate denial” and “science expert denial” seem to go together in the US Administration.

       How many novel coronavirus versions have been found so far?

       Researchers at Mt. Sinai Hospital, New York City, have “identified seven separate lineages of viruses that entered New York and began circulating.” They believe that …”we will probably find more”.

     Is there any good news in all this research?

     Yes! One piece of knowledge that has not been widely reported. “Some viruses evolve so quickly that they require vaccines that can produce several different antibodies”. (This makes producing a good vaccine really hard!). “But that’s not the case for COVID-19. Like other coronaviruses it has a relatively slow mutation rate compared to some viruses, like influenza. ..its mutation rate reveals, things could be a whole lot worse”.