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Listen: The Science and Mysteries of How the New Coronavirus Is Evolving

Listen: The Science and Mysteries of How the New Coronavirus Is Evolving

Partha Pratim Majumder. Photo: NIBMG.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus started infecting humans in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. How has the virus mutated and evolved so far? With one to two mutations occurring per month, researchers are now seeing a clade, or a sub-type, of the virus called A2a becoming more common in COVID-19 infections across the world. Partha P. Majumder, Nidhan Biswas and their colleagues at the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics (NIBMG), Kalyani, West Bengal, have done seminal work on analysing the ongoing mutations and evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Partha Pratim Majumder is one of India’s foremost researchers in statistical genomics and human genome variation. He joins host Pavan Srinath on The Pragati Podcast to unpack viral evolution and understand the latest research on how SARS-CoV-2 has mutated and evolved till date.

The Wire Science is republishing the conversation in partnership with The Pragati Podcast.

Majumder is the founder and a distinguished professor at the NIBMG, and is currently the president of the Indian Academy of Sciences. His latest research on SARS-COV-2:

  1. Biswas, N. and Majumder, P.P. Analysis of RNA Sequences of 3636 SARS-CoV-2 Collected from 55 Countries Reveals Selective Sweep of One Virus Type. Indian Journal of Medical Research. (In press, April 28, 2020)
  2. Bhattacharya, C. et al. Global Spread of SARS-CoV-2 Subtype with Spike Protein Mutation D614G is Shaped by Human Genomic Variations that Regulate Expression of TMPRSS2 and MX1 Genes. (preprint, May 5, 2020)

The A2a clade of the novel coronavirus is distinguished by a mutation that has been labelled D614G. In parallel to Biswas and Majumder’s studies of this mutation, Bette Korber and a consortium of scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico, and elsewhere uploaded a preprint paper of their study on biorXiv on April 30, also identifying the rising frequency and potential importance of the same mutation.

Researchers from China shared the first full genetic code – or genome sequence – of the SARS-CoV-2 virus on January 11, 2020. Another group of researchers published their analyses of the first few genome sequences by early February, 2020.

Global and open analysis of how the SARS-CoV-2 virus is mutating and evolving is possible in 2020 because of previous efforts on building open databases and systems for rapid data sharing, along with appropriate credit for researchers who upload genomic data. The Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID) is a public-private partnership out of Germany that launched in 2008 to encourage better sharing of influenza data. With COVID-19 becoming a pandemic in 2020, GISAID has become the database of choice for SARS-CoV-2 genomic sequences. With sequencing technology becoming less expensive and more accessible with each passing year, as of May 9, 2020, over 17,700 genome sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 virus have been publicly, with a greater number being shared every month.

Also read: How COVID-19 Is Shaping the Way Scientists Share Their Work

Other open initiatives, like Nextstrain, have built on GISAID and made the tracking of viral mutations and evolutions easier by cleaning up the data and allowing researchers to download readily analysable data as well. China stopped submitting sequences to GISAID in March, and that hole in genomic data is a problem that Majumder also highlights in the episode.

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