Munich/Berlin — Mutations that are part of the fast-spreading coronavirus strain found in the UK emerged months earlier than the variant was identified, underscoring the need for faster monitoring of the virus’s changes, according to a study led by BioNTech.

Some of the 17 mutations that characterise the more infectious strain — eight of which are on the spike protein — were found as early as March and April, according to a report whose authors include BioNTech CEO Uğur Şahin. It analysed about 150,000 sequences collected from around the world up to early October.

Only about 14% of those samples contained the exact spike protein as the coronavirus strain that first emerged from Wuhan, the researchers found. That version of the virus has been the target of most therapies and vaccines developed over the past year.

“These findings demonstrate the increasing importance of monitoring SARS-CoV-2 sequences for early detection of variants,” the authors said. Şahin wrote the report with five other authors from the University of Mainz; it hasn’t yet been peer reviewed.

The rise of new coronavirus strains — in particular those that have emerged in the UK, SA and Brazil — has prompted calls for vaccinating people more quickly before mutations can become widespread. Companies, including AstraZeneca, are studying the variants to find ways their vaccinations could work better against them.

While the analysis confirms the notion that the coronavirus mutates at a slower rate than most RNA viruses, the prevalence of changes to the spike protein steadily increased throughout September, Şahin wrote.

The UK strain — also known as the B.1.1.7 lineage — is thought to have first emerged in September, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Public Health England said in a report on Monday that it is picking up another mutation — one already present in the SA and Brazil strains — that appears to make the virus more resistant to vaccines.


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