Genetic mutation study finds new coronavirus spread swiftly in late 2019

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(Reuters) – A genetic analysis of samples from more than 7,500 people infected with COVID-19 suggests the new coronavirus spread quickly around the world late last year and is adapting to its human hosts, scientists said on Wednesday.

A study by scientists at University College London’s (UCL)Genetics Institute found almost 200 recurrent genetic mutations of the new coronavirus – SARS-CoV-2 – which the researchers said showed how it may be evolving as it spreads in people. 

Francois Balloux, a UCL professor who co-led the research, said results showed that a large proportion of the global genetic diversity of SARS-CoV-2 is found in all of the hardest-hit countries. That suggests that the virus was already being transmitted extensively around the globe from early on in the epidemic. 

“All viruses naturally mutate. Mutations in themselves are not a bad thing and there is nothing to suggest SARS-CoV-2 is mutating faster or slower than expected,” said Balloux. “So far we cannot say whether SARS-CoV-2 is becoming more or less lethal and contagious.”

Balloux’s team screened the genomes of more than 7,500 viruses from infected patients around the world. Their results add to a growing body of evidence that SARS-CoV-2 viruses share a common ancestor from late 2019, suggesting this was when the virus jumped from a previous animal host into people. 

This means it is most unlikely the virus causing Covid-19 was in human circulation for long before it was first detected, Balloux said. 

A study by French scientists published earlier this week found a man there was infected with COVID-19 as early as Dec. 27, nearly a month before France confirmed its first cases. 

The World Health Organization said the French case was “not surprising” and urged countries to investigate any other early suspicious cases.

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