Al Futtaim drive through
Drive through testing centres have been set up across the UAE. Image Credit: Sankha Kar/Gulf News

Dubai: In a press briefing on Saturday, the UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention announced new cases, recoveries and updates.

During the briefing, authorities also stressed on how the UAE was contributing to the international scientific study of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the COVID-19 infection.

Dr. Alawi Ali Al Sheikh, spokesperson for the advanced sciences sector in the UAE, said: ​"We have mentioned in the past few weeks a study that is being conducted by the Mohammed bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences, the Dubai Health Authority, and Al Jalila Children’s Specialty Hospital. This study aims to sequence viral samples from 240 patients with COVID-19​​​​​​."

He explained that the novel coronavirus, like other viruses, mutate and change constantly. Al Sheikh added, "When the virus takes over human cells, it turns them into factories producing millions of new viruses, and like every other virus, slight changes take place in the genetic strains of the virus in which new strains are developed."

UAE has two strains

Cambridge University researchers published a report earlier this year identifying three strains of the virus in COVID-19 cases across the world. They analysed the first 160 complete virus genomes to be sequenced from human patients, and mapped some of the original spread of the new coronavirus through its mutations, which creates different viral lineages. They classified these as types 'A', 'B' and 'C'.

The closest type of SARS-CoV-2 to the one discovered in bats – type ‘A’ - was found in Chinese cases and foreigners who lived in Wuhan. Mutations of this strain was also found in USA and Australia. Type 'B' was the most common strain in epicentre Wuhan but not as common outside China. Type 'C' strain has been linked to most cases in Europe.

Variant ‘A’, most closely related to the virus found in both bats and pangolins, is described as 'the root of the outbreak' by researchers. Type ‘B’ is derived from ‘A’, separated by two mutations, then ‘C’ is in turn a “daughter” of ‘B’.

Based on findings from 49 patients in UAE and the complete sequencing data of 25 patients, Al Sheikh said, two strains of the virus have been found in the UAE. 24 of the cases with complete genetic sequencing were found to have strain B of the virus, and most of them were related to travel to Europe. There is only one case that had strain A of the virus, and it was a Chinese tourist coming from Wuhan, he noted.

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70 mutations, 17 unique

The findings also indicate that there are 70 mutations in the UAE in the existing strains, 17 of which have not been identified internationally in efforts to sequence the virus, Al Sheikh mentioned.

Viruses such as COVID-19 are essentially bundles of coded material - RNA - containing instructions for how to build copies of themselves.

Since they need the cells of another organism (in this case humans) in order to replicate, tiny errors occur as the RNA is reproduced, leading to mutations.

This is normal

Reacting to both the UCL and Los Alamos studies, Lawrence Young, professor of Molecular Oncology at the University of Warwick, told AFP that any talk of more virulent strains was "speculation" right now. He noted that unlike other viral diseases such as HIV, COVID-19 doesn't appear to be mutating at a high rate.

"There is currently no compelling evidence that the mutations have had a significant effect on how the virus affects us," he said.

Oscar MacLean, from the University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research added, "It is important people are not concerned about virus mutations - these are normal and expected as a virus passes through a population."

While mutations don't mean that COVID-19 is getting more potent or more infectious, experts stressed it was still important to track its evolution. 

"Sequencing more genomes will help us to better understand the spread of the virus and whether some of the minor changes observed are important in the behaviour of the virus and how we should develop effective vaccines," said Young.

For Ian Jones, a professor of virology at the University of Reading, the issue of mutation was of less importance than testing and treating people who become infected.

"At our cost the virus is doing well enough colonising the human population, I don't see the drive for it to get nastier anytime soon," he said.

- Inputs from WAM, AFP, Reuters