The new coronavirus, which has killed 2.65 million people worldwide since it emerged in China in late 2019, mutates about once every two weeks, slower than flu or HIV, but enough to require vaccine adjustments .
Sharon Peacock, who heads COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK), which has sequenced half of all new coronavirus genomes mapped around the world so far, said international cooperation is needed in the battle. ” cat and mouse “against the virus.
“We have to understand that we will always need to have booster doses; immunity to the coronavirus does not last forever,” Peacock told Reuters on the 55-acre campus of the non-profit Wellcome Sanger Institute, at the Cambridge exterior.
“We are already tweaking vaccines to cope with what the virus is doing in terms of evolution – so there are variants that appear that combine increased transmissibility and an ability to partially evade our immune response,” he said. she declared.
Peacock said she was convinced that regular booster shots – like with the flu – would be needed to deal with future variants, but the speed of vaccine innovation meant these vaccines could be developed at a steady pace. and disseminated to the population.
COG-UK was created by Cambridge professor Peacock exactly one year ago with the help of the UK government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance as the virus spread across the world in Britain.
The consortium of public health institutions and academics now constitute the world’s largest pool of knowledge on the genetics of the virus: at sites across Britain, it has sequenced 346,713 genomes of the virus on a global effort to ‘about 709,000 genomes.
On the intellectual front of the Wellcome Sanger Institute, hundreds of scientists – many with doctorates, many work on a volunteer basis, and some listen to heavy metal or electronic beats – work seven days a week to map and then research the growing family tree of the virus. worrying trends.
The Wellcome Sanger Institute sequenced more than half of the total sequenced genomes of the virus in the UK after processing 19 million samples from PCR tests in one year. COG-UK was sequencing around 30,000 genomes per week – more than the UK previously did in a year.
Three main variants of the coronavirus – which were first identified in Britain (known as B.1.1.7), Brazil (known as P1) and South Africa (known as name of B.1.351) – are subject to special examination.
Peacock said she was very worried about B.1.351.
“It’s more transmissible, but it also has a change in a gene mutation, which we call E484K, which is associated with reduced immunity – so our immunity is reduced against this virus,” Peacock said.
With 120 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide, it’s becoming difficult to keep track of all the alphabet soup of variants, so Peacock’s teams think in terms of “constellations of mutations.”
“So a constellation of mutations would be like a ranking if you will – which mutations in the genome of particular concern to us, the E484K has to be one of the first in the ranking,” she said.
“We are therefore developing our thinking around this classification to reflect, regardless of origin and lineage, which mutations or constellations of mutations will be biologically important and the different combinations which may have slightly different biological effects.”
Peacock, however, warned of humility in the face of a virus that has caused so much death and economic destruction.
“One of the things the virus has taught me is that I can be wrong on a fairly regular basis – I have to be quite humble in the face of a virus that we still know very little about,” she said.
“There may be a variant that we haven’t even discovered yet.”
There will be future pandemics, however.
“I think it is inevitable that we will emerge another virus that is of concern. What I hope is that after learning what we have in this global pandemic, we will be better prepared to detect it and to contain it. ”