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New Aussie software tracks COVID-19 mutations that threaten vaccine efficacy

Xinhua | Updated: 2020-09-10 14:34
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Members of a research team, led by Monash University, are seen in Melbourne, Australia, in this screen grab taken from an undated handout video. [Photo/Agencies]

SYDNEY -- Australian researchers have developed a new tool to help tackle the problem of mutations in COVID-19, which could render prospective vaccines ineffective.

On Wednesday, the team from Melbourne University revealed a new software program, dubbed COVID-3D, which harnesses genomic and protein information about the virus to help develop more effective vaccine and drug targets.

"Although the SARS-CoV-2 virus is a relatively new pathogen, its ability to readily accumulate mutations across its genes was evident from the start of this pandemic," project leader and Associate Professor David Ascher said.

Ascher explained that these mutations can affect the ability of vaccines and drugs to bind the virus or create a specific immune response against it.

"Because of this, scientists must not only try to control the virus, but outsmart it by predicting how it will change over time," he said.

To develop COVID-3D, Ascher and his team analyzed the genome sequencing data of over 120,000 SARS-CoV-2 samples from infected people around the globe.

Using computer simulations, they tested and analyzed the mutations' effects on their protein structure, enabling the team to calculate all the biological effects of every possible mutation within the genome.

Furthermore, to help account for possible future variations, the team studied mutations in related coronaviruses SARS-CoV and Bat RaTG13.

They found SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, so far was mutating slower than other viruses such as influenza, with about two new changes in its genome every month.

Ascher said he hopes COVID-3D will prove a powerful resource to predict problems with mutations and to guide the development of more effective therapies to fight the virus.

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