Image credit: “COVID-19 Outbreak World Map per Capita” by Raphaël Dunant is under a CC BY 4.0 license.
The article we’re demystifying today can be found here if you’d like to follow along.
It’s rare that sequels are an improvement on the original. Thor gave rise to Thor: The Dark World, Call of Duty descended into a series of clones, and the Jaws franchise ended with Jaws 4: The Revenge. It would stand to reason that viruses, like SARS-CoV-2, only get worse with new iterations.
As viruses reproduce and move through hosts, they accumulate mutations, small alterations to their genetic material that can lead to big changes on the level of infection. When the altered DNA is used to make proteins, it changes the sequence of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, resulting in proteins with slight differences. As these genetic mutations stack up, different variants emerge, such as the U.K. and South African variants of SARS-CoV-2. We have already seen that the UK variant (B117) is more infectious due to its mutation of the gene that codes for the receptor binding domain (RBD), the element that attaches to receptors on human cells. As such, keeping track of these genetic mutations is essential in managing spread and treatment.
Researchers from the Computational Bioscience Research Center (CBRC) of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology created CovMT, or the COVID-19 virus Mutation Tracker system, for this purpose. The system scours GISAID, an open-access database of SARS-CoV-2 genomes, tracking genetic mutations as they appear worldwide and in real time. CovMT draws from the data of 450,000 SARS-CoV-2 isolates, giving them each a “mutation fingerprint.” The system also provides illness severity, date, and location.
With CovMT, you can track the timeline of genetic mutations in the virus’ RBD region. The N501Y amino acid change, which can be found in the UK variant, dates all the way back to the end of January 2020 and has now been spotted by CovMT in nearly 60 countries. This specific genetic mutation causes the amino acid asparagine to be switched for another amino acid, called tyrosine, in the RBD region, allowing the virus to bind tighter to cells. Another RBD amino acid change, E484K, is found in the South African variant (B1351) and was first spotted in Denmark during the month of March 2020. Both genetic mutations can be found in the P1 variant discovered on January 2, 2021 in travelers from Brazil.
While CovMT is certainly an asset for healthcare workers and scientists, it’s also available for anyone to use. Click here to explore CovMT and be updated on the status of these variants!