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UAMS study points to limited potential for coronavirus mutations

1-25 ussery covid graph.png
David Ussery
/
UAMS
A graph displays genomic sequencing of samples from different variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

A new study hints at promising news for those researching new drugs and vaccines to fight COVID-19.

The study led by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences suggests the virus that causes COVID-19 may have a limited potential for new mutations. Researchers looked at how the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 virus affects its ability to mutate and evade new drug therapies.

UAMS researcher David Ussery, Ph.D. led the study, along with a multinational team of investigators. Speaking with KUAR News, Ussery said the genetic RNA code of the virus points to its ability to mutate.

“In TV shows if someone commits a crime and you have the DNA, you can figure out who did it. So the DNA is the best unique identifier for people. It’s also true in viruses,” Ussery said. “In the case of COVID, it’s an RNA sequence, you have the entire sequence, it’s about 30,000 characters… so then you can know what’s causing the problem.”

Ussery says, unlike other RNA viruses like HIV, the virus that causes COVID-19 spontaneously mutates far less.

“By looking at millions of viruses, we can actually quantitate how often we see these changes. And when we look carefully, the number of changes for the coronaviruses are much less than other RNA viruses. So the mutations are happening less frequently,” Ussery said.

The study looked at the virus’ structure, particularly the way it regulates the production of protein segments known as epitopes. Those can have multiple different shapes, which can make it difficult for antibodies to bind to as part of the body’s natural immune defense.

Ussery says, while the coronavirus will continue to mutate into new variants, the structure of the virus makes it relatively easy to combat with vaccinations.

“It’s always going to adapt as best it can, but having said that, the good news is that these vaccines that have been developed are extremely effective. And the point is that although it’s changing some, probably the vaccines will still work. And so far they have,” Ussery said.

Vaccines against COVID-19 target the way antibodies attach to proteins on the surface of the virus, which Ussery says provides good protection against numerous variants of the coronavirus.

“The way that they’re designed is instead of the whole virus, you’re only looking at one protein, and only part of one protein. And basically the way that they interact with the immune system is the immune system will make lots of different antibodies for different parts of that protein,” Ussery said. “In principle there are unforeseen changes that could make [the virus] better adapted, but nonetheless the point is that these changes are happening less frequently than with other viruses.”

Ussery says his team hopes to continue studying genomic sequences of coronavirus samples using the UAMS-based high-performance computer known as GRACE. The study was published in the journal FEMS Microbiology Reviews.

Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer for KUAR.