Filipino scientists to expand study on coronavirus strain mutation

The Philippine Genome Center (PGC) will expand its research on the new strain of the SARS-CoV-2 which causes the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) after it was found in samples in Quezon City earlier this month.

Dr. Cynthia Saloma, PGC executive director, said in an interview that the research center is set to conduct more extensive research on COVID-19 positive test results samples from March up to October across the country.

Saloma said this was to determine if the D614G mutation in SARS-CoV-2, which has become the dominant strain of the virus worldwide, is also the prevalent strain here in the country.

"We can detect the mutation in the Philippines but whether it is also the prevalent strain here, we don't know that yet because the research we conducted is from a very small sample size," she told Manila Bulletin.

"That is why we are going to conduct a much bigger study sponsored by the DOST (Department of Science and Technology) to sequence about 900 more from Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao," Saloma said.

According to the university professor, there was already a grant from the DOST regarding the expanded research program that was approved this month and is set to be launched by September.

"We have collaborators from everywhere. We will get samples first from national laboratories particularly those with biobank because as the science progresses we have to go back to the original samples," Saloma explained.

"What is the importance of going back to the archive samples? Because we want to see paano ba yung pag-evolve ng virus locally (how does the virus evolve locally). We will not sequence all of the samples but randomly. There's a sampling design for that," she added.

The PGC official said the research is expected to be done by October.

Apart from the G614 variant, the research center will also monitor other possible mutations of the virus that could also be circulating in the country.

In its bulletin posted on August 13 that was previously submitted to the DOH, the PGC said that it has detected the G614 variant in all of the nine randomly selected COVID-19 positive samples collected in Quezon City in July.

However, she said that there is still no "direct evidence" that it is more infectious than the original strain and a lot of the speculation about its infectiousness or transmissibility comes from in vitro or cell culture data.

While the D614G mutation "created a lot of interest" in the science community as many scientists have designed their vaccines based on the sequences of the spike region of the virus, Saloma said that, so far, it seems not to compromise those vaccine designs.

"We just want to clarify that we don't have to be very, very alarmed about this. This is not a new mutation. We just reported that it has been detected in the Philippines, but it has been in circulation in Europe as well as in the US," Saloma emphasized.

"It is very important that all of us will continue to be vigilant, we follow the advice of the health department while at the same time we should also protect the more vulnerable population, particularly those with co-morbidities," she said.