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Study says 2 strains of new coronavirus are spreading. What does that mean?

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WATCH: Still unknown whether COVID-19 is seasonal virus, WHO says

As health officials continue in their endeavour to contain the novel coronavirus outbreak, a new study suggests there may be two strains of the virus infecting people around the globe.

What does this mean? Has the virus mutated?

Here’s what we know so far.

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Scientists identify two types

Researchers from Peking University’s School of Life Sciences and the Institut Pasteur of Shanghai under the Chinese Academy of Sciences released a preliminary study on Tuesday that analyzed 103 publicly available genomes from patients infected with the novel coronavirus.

The study found in 70 per cent of the cases, the patient was infected with a more aggressive strain of the virus, detected late last year in Wuhan, China.

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The remaining 30 per cent of cases were linked to a less aggressive strain of the virus, the study said.

Researchers said the virus likely went through “mutations and natural selection besides recombination,” which caused it to develop the different strains.

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The scientists cautioned, though, that the study only looked at a limited range of data, and said followup studies of larger data sets were needed to better understand the virus’s evolution.

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“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 (COVID-19),” researchers wrote in the study.

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The findings were published in the National Science Review.

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What does this mean?

Stanley Perlman, a coronavirus expert at the University of Iowa told Global News “time will tell” if there are two different strains, but that right now it “does seem like there are two variations of the virus.”

“It seems like there’s quite a few mutations so you could interpret it as mutations or two separate entries into human populations,” he said. “I think that it’s just really early to know.”

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Perlman said he was “puzzled” by the study because all of the other available data suggests there is only one strain of the virus.

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What’s more, Perlman said he’s not sure if the data supports the researchers’ claims that one variation is more aggressive than the other.

“I don’t think the data is there for that, it just shows that there’s two different variations circulating and whether they’re the same or different,” he said. “They’re different, but if it’s different enough to rise by mutation or something else, I don’t know.”

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Stephen Griffon, a professor and expert in infection and immunity at Britain’s Leeds University, told Reuters that while the study is interesting, its findings are “difficult to confirm.”

“It’s difficult to confirm studies like this without a direct side-by-side comparison of pathogenicity and spread in, ideally, an animal model, or at least a greatly extended epidemiological study,” he said.

Will this impact vaccine development?

Since the virus was first detected, health officials have been working tirelessly to develop a vaccine, though it is not expected to be released for at least a year.

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If the virus is, in fact, mutating, does that mean the vaccine will only be effective against one strain?

Perlman said that depends on how different they are.

For now, he said the data suggests the vaccine should be effective in treating both.

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“Certainly viruses evolve — you could imagine there being a problem,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s going to be a problem with this virus, because really so far there’s been minimal evolution of the virus.”

He added, though, that the virus could continue to change.

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“Of course, if continued evolution occurs, who knows what’ll happen,” Perlman said.

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-With files from Reuters