The monkeypox virus appears to have mutated far, far more than would normally be expected, according to researchers investigating its genetic make-up.
According to researchers from the National Institute of Health in Portugal, around 50 genetic variations were seen in the viruses they studied compared to ones from 2018 and 2019, the Newsweek reported.
This “is far more than one would expect considering previous estimates” of the mutation rate of orthopoxviruses of which monkeypox is a type — between six and 12 times more, they wrote in the paper published in the journal Nature Medicine.
These significant genetic variations might suggest “accelerated evolution”, they added.
“Our data reveals additional clues of ongoing viral evolution and potential human adaptation,” the team wrote, adding that they had identified proteins that are known to interact with peoples’ immune systems.
However, it is not known whether the mutations have contributed to increased transmissibility between people, Joao Paulo Gomes, head of the Genomics & Bioinformatics Unit at the Institute, was quoted as saying.
“We do not know that. We just know that these additional 50 mutations were quite unexpected,” Gomes said.
As part of the study, the team researchers collected 15 monkeypox virus sequences in total — mostly from Portugal — and reconstructed their genetic data.
Gomes said that the latest monkeypox outbreak seems to be “a descendant of the one in the 2017 Nigeria outbreak, one would expect no more than five to 10 additional mutations instead of the observed about 50 mutations”.
Further, most of the mutations are of a particular type that could have been introduced by a human defence mechanism called APOBEC3, which works by introducing mutations to viruses in order to stop them from working properly, Pam Vallely, professor of medical virology at the University of Manchester was quoted as saying.
“However, in this case the mutations are apparently not making the virus non-viable and may be helping it to adapt to human-human transmission,” Vallely, who was not involved in the study, told Newsweek.
The researchers say their work shows that viral genome sequencing of monkeypox might be precise enough to track the spread of the current outbreak and see how transmission might be changing, the report said.