Discovery of almost 200 coronavirus mutations could help develop a vaccine

6 May 2020

Image: © Matthias Friel/

Researchers studying Covid-19 have identified almost 200 mutations that could help develop treatments or a vaccine.

The novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, has been analysed in more than 7,500 infected patients as part of the latest research from a team at University College London. Writing in Infection, Genetics and Evolution, the team said it has characterised patterns of the genome.

This has led to the identification of close to 200 recurrent genetic mutations in the virus, which can help show how it may be adapting and evolving in human hosts.

A significant proportion of the global genetic diversity of the virus was found in all of the hardest-hit countries. The team said that this suggests a rapid global transmission early on, meaning it was unlikely there was a single ‘patient zero’ in most countries.

One step ahead of mutations

“All viruses naturally mutate,” said Prof Francois Balloux, co-lead author of the study.

“Mutations in themselves are not a bad thing and there is nothing to suggest SARS-CoV-2 is mutating faster or slower than expected. So far we cannot say whether SARS-CoV-2 is becoming more or less lethal and contagious.”

The small genetic mutations discovered by the team were not evenly distributed across the genome. As some parts had very few mutations, these could be better targets for drug and vaccine development, according to the researchers.

“A major challenge to defeating viruses is that a vaccine or drug might no longer be effective if the virus has mutated,” Balloux explained.

“If we focus our efforts on parts of the virus that are less likely to mutate, we have a better chance of developing drugs that will be effective in the long run.”

‘Could be invaluable to drug development’

The team has now developed an open-source online app for researchers to review the virus genomes.

Another co-lead of the research, Dr Lucy van Dorp, said: “Being able to analyse such an extraordinary number of virus genomes within the first few months of the pandemic could be invaluable to drug development efforts, and showcases how far genomic research has come even within the last decade.

“We are all benefiting from a tremendous effort by hundreds of researchers globally who have been sequencing virus genomes and making them available online.

“We need to develop drugs and vaccines that cannot be easily evaded by the virus.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic