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Leading specialists discuss the success of UAE's genetic sequencing in a recent Webinar Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: The UAE’s genetic sequencing research on the COVID-19 coronavirus has identified 17 previously unreported mutations, according to a recent webinar between leading reseachers hosted by the Office of Advanced Sciences.

The study used findings from 49 of the earliest confirmed cases in the UAE, with full genetic sequencing completed in 25 patients.

Dr. Ahmad Abou Tayoun, Associate Professor of Genetics at Mohammad Bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences (MBRU) and Director of the Genomics Centre at Al Jalila Children’s Specialty Hospital, said, “The first thing we did was compare the genetic sequence to the reference genome that was originally found in Wuhan. We then identified 70 mutations in the 25 early cases. We also found that out of the 70 mutations, 17 were not previously reported.”

Identifying these new 17 mutations can help add to the global knowledge of the virus, he added.

Dr. Tayoun said that the mutations are very slight, using the analogy of how the single random change of a letter in a book will not alter its story,

“This suggests that the virus is really stable which is good news because this stable molecule means that the chances of a vaccine working is much higher.”

The study also identified several travel-related introductions of the virus from Asia, Europe, and the Middle East during the early part of the pandemic and mapped these early viral strains to an evolving global ‘family tree’ of the coronavirus.

Professor Alawi Alsheikh-Ali, the official spokesperson for the Advanced Sciences sector in the UAE, member of the Emirates Scientist Council and Provost of MBRU, said, “Identifying the multiple introductions just tells us the story of how the pandemic started in the UAE. It’s not surprising that you would see multiple introductions in major cities across the world.”

These findings can help in understanding and tracking the virus, Alawi explained.

A common question that Professor Alawi receives is whether or not the virus could be stronger in certain areas.

“The key question is, is there a particular strain that is more or less dangerous than the other? This why it’s important to make these studies so we can answer these questions. So far, there is no convincing evidence that one strain is any more or less dangerous that another. There’s no evidence that the virus is stronger or more dangerous in the UAE than any other country.”

Dr. Tom Loney, Associate Professor of Public Health and Epidemiology at MBRU, said, “The strength of our study is that we have very strong clinical data on our cases, we also have social demographic data and travel and occupational data. We have uploaded all this data to international databases so other people can download our sequences and I think if all of us contributed pieces to the jigsaw it helps us at a global scale in understanding how this virus transmits in countries and across borders.”

Dr. Abdulmajeed Saif AlKhajeh, Consultant, Medical Education and Research Department at Dubai Health Authority added, “In the era of COVID-19, there are many researches going on worldwide in this area. As they say, to beat your enemy you must know your enemy. So any piece of information that we can get from research is going to be valuable in the fight against this virus and this pandemic.”