Story at a glance
- Thousands of genetic sequences of the virus have been uploaded to the open database NextStrain.
- The database shows how the virus is spreading and splitting into new but similar subtypes.
- Researchers say the mutations are slight and it does not appear the strains will grow more lethal as they evolve.
Researchers have identified at least eight strains of the novel coronavirus that has infected more than one million people across the globe, and say the mutations are useful in determining just how the virus is spreading.
Thousands of genetic sequences of the virus have been uploaded to the open database NextStrain, which shows how the virus is migrating and splitting into new but similar subtypes. Researchers said the data show the virus is mutating on average every 15 days, according to National Geographic.
NexStrain co-founder Trevor Bedford said, however, the mutations are so small that no one strain of the virus is more deadly than another. Researchers also say it does not appear the strains will grow more lethal as they evolve.
“These mutations are completely benign and useful as a puzzle piece to uncover how the virus is spreading,” Bedford told National Geographic.
Bedford said the different strains make it possible for researchers to see whether community transmission is widespread in a region, which can show whether stay-at-home measures are working.
“We’ll be able to tell how much less transmission we’re seeing and answer the question, ‘Can we take our foot off the gas?” Bedford said.
The database also shows how the coronavirus is spreading throughout the U.S.
Charles Chiu, a professor of medicine and infectious disease at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, told USA Today that the outbreaks are “trackable,” and “we have the ability to do genomic sequencing almost in real-time to see what strains or lineages are circulating.”
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A majority of cases on the West Coast have been linked to a strain first identified in Washington state, which is three mutations away from the first known strain, while on the East Coast, the virus seems to have come from China to Europe and then to New York, according to USA Today.
Kristian Andersen, a professor at Scripps Research, told USA Today the maps only show a snapshot of the full spread of the virus.
“Remember, we’re seeing a very small glimpse into the much larger pandemic,” Andersen told USA Today. “We have half a million described cases right now but maybe 1,000 genomes sequenced. So there are a lot of lineages we’re missing.”
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