A new mutation of coronavirus sampled by the National Institute of Virology from a patient from Kerala, India has the potential to upend all the research performed by scientists and deal a massive blow to the development of COVID-19 vaccine.
A new study published by researchers from Taiwan and Australia said that the new mutation leads to a “weaker receptor binding capability” in the novel coronavirus, which is a proof that change has occurred in the part of the spike protein that allows the virus to bind with human cells.
With the new mutation, the scientific research done could prove futile as scientists were working on creating antibodies for ACE2 cells as the novel coronavirus had been targeting this particular receptor cells.
The antibodies are produced inside the human body in response to a vaccine or an infection and work by binding themselves to specific spots on a virus called an antigen. If random viral mutations alter the shape of an antigen, it can make a vaccine less effective against the virus.
Most of the research for developing a vaccine has been aimed at stopping the action of the viral spike (S) protein that the virus uses to enter human cells, where it replicates to cause infection. “The observation of this study raised the alarm that Sars-CoV-2 mutation with varied epitope [something an antibody attaches itself to] profile could arise at any time,” Wei-Lung Wang from the National Changhua University of Education in Taiwan, and his collaborators from Murdoch University in Australia wrote in a paper released on preprint review site biorxiv.org on Saturday, April 11.
“[This] means the current vaccine development against Sars-CoV-2 is at a great risk of becoming futile,” they added, reports the South China Morning Post (SCMP). The findings of the study are yet to be peer-reviewed and will need further verification.
There is also a possibility that the mutation was caused by a technical error during the sequencing process and there is also a chance that the results produced by the computer simulation were misleading according to a researcher who spoke to SCMP on the condition of anonymity.
The researchers said that they had identified a mutation that led to weaker receptor binding capability, from a Sars-CoV-2 sample collected on 27th January 2020 from India. The study found that the mutation occurred in the spike protein’s receptor-binding domain (RBD) which as per computer simulations showed it could remove a hydrogen bond from the spike protein which is essential for the virus to bind itself to ACE2 or angiotensin-converting enzyme-2, which is found in the lungs and other organs.
A Hindustan Times report quoted Dr. T Jacob John, professor emeritus and former head of virology at Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu saying that the lower receptor fit may make the virus less efficient in transmission, but then it is equally important to watch out for a change in virulence also.
But if the results are indeed accurate, they will hinder the creation of a long-lasting vaccine that is already in the clinical trial stage in China and the USA.
All viruses evolve over time, accumulating mutations as they replicate imperfectly inside a host’s cells. According to scientists, the genetic structure of the new coronavirus looks pretty much the same everywhere and there is no evidence suggesting that some strains are deadlier than others.
However, some researchers speculate that sampled and sequenced strains are just the tip of the iceberg and there may be newer mutations that would require newer vaccines.