Aggressive new coronavirus strain found
AS THE global coronavirus crisis worsens, a group of Chinese scientists have found that the deadly disease has evolved into two strains that are responsible for the global outbreak.
In a new study published in the National Science Review, researchers suggested that after the virus crossed into humans, the original strain evolved into a second type and both of these are now circulating.
The discovery comes as the number of confirmed cases around the world continues to increase, prompting governments to close schools and cancel prayers, and panicked shoppers to wipe supermarket shelves of essential items.
Although further research is needed, the preliminary study carried out at Peking University's School of Life Sciences and the Institute Pasteur of Shanghai sheds some light on how the disease is evolving.
Chinese scientists found the novel #coronavirus has two strains, of which the more infectious type shows significant difference with bat coronavirus and is unlikely originated from the pangolin coronavirus once spread in Guangdong Province, according to a new study pic.twitter.com/u5s1rHnr4y— People's Daily, China (@PDChina) March 4, 2020
The scientists analysed 103 coronavirus genomes and identified mutations in 149 sites across the strains. They found that one type, which they called the "L" type, was more aggressive than the other - accounting for 70 per cent of the cases they analysed.
The less aggressive strain, identified as "S", appeared to be the ancestor of the more prevalent one. While strain "L" was found to have a higher presence when the outbreak first began in Wuhan, it started to subside in early January, as the "S" type has now increased.
The study suggested that this could be due to the rush to treat patients infected with the "L" strain, whose symptoms are easier to detect.
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"If the L type is more aggressive than the S type, why did the relative frequency of the L type decrease compared to the S type in other places after the initial breakout in Wuhan?" the researchers asked.
Actions soon after the outbreak was discovered in China in December may have changed the abundance of each type, the report said. The Chinese central and local governments' drastic containment measures, including lockdowns of cities and travel bans, may have curbed the spread of the "L" type.
However, this may have led to the increased "frequency" of the less aggressive strain, after evidence found that coronavirus can be spread before symptoms even appear.
"We are now sure that there is a possibility that people can transmit this virus before they become symptomatic," Australian deputy chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelley said.
"This is quite a change in what we understand about the virus and it has led to some different ways that we are dealing with the public health issues."
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The researchers said follow-up studies were needed to form a better understanding of the virus' evolution and spread.
"These findings strongly support an urgent need for further immediate, comprehensive studies that combine genomic data, epidemiological data and chart records of the clinical symptoms of patients with coronavirus disease 2019," the authors wrote.
Experts not directly involved in the study said its findings were interesting but cautioned against drawing firm conclusions from such preliminary research.
More than 95,000 cases of the disease have been confirmed worldwide and over 3000 people have died, with Italy surpassing China in its daily number of new infection for the first time since the virus spread.
Italy, which has been the European country worst hit by the outbreak so far, will likely join China and Iran on the list of countries Australians are banned from travelling to.
Currently, Aussies returning from Italy have been asked to self-quarantine if they work in the health or aged care sector.
However, now that a 95-year-old woman has become Australia's second person to die from the coronavirus - and the number of cases nationwide increases to 50 - stricter measures are likely to be put in place.
While Australians are taking desperate measures to prepare for the possibility of a global pandemic being declared, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday that people should go about their lives in a "calm manner".
"Australians should continue to go about their lives in their normal way and just exercise common sense in the same way you would during a severe winter season, where there may be an outbreak of the flu or something like that," the PM said.