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An online tool that can monitor and track mutant coronavirus strains

An interactive platform that enables users to know the source of new Corona virus mutations, and track their spread in all countries of the world.

The year 2020 witnessed the declaration of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 as a global pandemic. While scientists are joining efforts to find an effective vaccine, the virus continues to mutate to put us in front of another challenge: Are these vaccines effective against new strains?

For this reason, monitoring the source of new mutations and tracking them, as well as knowing how dangerous each of them are, has become so important to controlling the virus.

A tool for tracking recent mutations

Recently, scientists at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia developed a tool – which came online – that could track mutations of the Corona virus, which would help researchers and decision-makers to understand the developments of the virus.

This tool may also enable politicians to take the necessary measures, as a result of monitoring any of the new mutations that are spreading in their countries. The tool has been called “CovMT”.

According to the press release published by the university in response to the correspondence published by the journal “The Lancet Infectious Diseases” on February 8, the computational biologist and leader of the study Elect a Scientist says that the new tool “will help researchers, politicians, as well as the general public.” Access to updated information specific to each country, regarding the new virus mutations and the severity of each of them.

The interactive map of the “CovMT” tool that enables knowledge of the number of local and new strains (COFMT-KAUST tool)

How does the tracking tool work?

This new tool relies on genetic data collected by the GISAID platform, a global non-profit scientific initiative established in 2008 to provide access to genetic data for influenza viruses. The World Health Organization always stresses that countries must intensify efforts to track the genetic sequences of virus strains in them.

Regarding the SARS-Cove-2 virus, the “Jayside” platform collects daily genetic sequences and clinical and epidemiological data from various countries of the world. The “COFMT” tool processes these data to discover and classify new mutations, and then present their results in the form of graphs. Simple pictograms that are easy for the general public to use and interact with.

Initially, the team devised a conceptual formula known as “mutational fingerprinting,” which describes virus isolates that carry the same mutations. This helped determine where each “mutation signature” arose, and thus made it easier for scientists to track the spread of these mutations to other countries.

And because the “Jesside” platform also collects patient data and disease severity associated with each mutant strain, the tracking tool can predict the disease severity of virus isolates that have the same “mutational signature” but lack any patient-specific data.

Comparison of the number of domestic and foreign breeds in a number of countries (COFMT-KAUST data)

Implications and new results

The new tool showed that the spread of strains differs from one continent to another, and also showed that the mutant strain (B.1.1.7) that spread rapidly in the fall of 2020 and winter 2021 in the United Kingdom, has acquired another new mutation – (E484K), which is the acid change Glutamic-484 to another amino acid called lysine – which may have implications for the vaccine’s effectiveness against this strain.

Also, 510 virus isolates of (B.1.351) strain showed that they contain 3 mutations in the binding region on the spinal protein of the virus responsible for its association with host cells.

It is known that mutations that occur in this area in particular make the virus more contagious. The mutant strain containing the three aforementioned variants has been found in South Africa, the United Kingdom and 22 other countries.

The spread of mutated Corona virus strains varies from one continent to another (COFMT-KAUST Tool)

“It is possible to control this tool to suit any other infectious diseases in the future,” says Molecular biologist Takashi Kojuburi, director in charge of the Computational Biological Sciences Research Center at KAUST.

Of course, such a tool is added as one of the efforts necessary to control and contain the virus, especially in light of the continuous mutations that the virus is witnessing these days.

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