Recent coronavirus mutations could have "important implications" in the race for a vaccine, scientists say, after analysis of the disease turned up some worrying results.
Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) found that the same mutations in SARS-CoV-2 - the virus that causes COVID-19 - have been noted all over the world.
This is causing concern the virus has gained "improved ability for human transmission", the LSHTM explained in a press release.
"Mutations, or 'viral variants', are often seen in viruses, usually a result of tiny errors during the DNA replication process that do not change the virus' ability to survive," it said.
"[But] the mutations identified by the LSHTM team are different in that they have occurred simultaneously around the world, indicating that they give the virus an advantage."
However it's not the fact COVID-19 could be better at spreading that's the main concern - it's that the mutations could lay waste to all the work towards a coronavirus vaccine so far.
Martin Hibberd, a senior author on the study and Professor of Emerging Infectious Diseases at LSHTM, says while there have only been very few mutations, some of them are worrying.
"Overall, the virus does not seem to have mutated very much and most strains are relatively similar to each other. This suggests that the virus is well adapted to humans and is not changing rapidly," he said.
"However, while the number of genetic variations at this stage of the pandemic were relatively small, we have seen a few that look important to the virus and these could have important implications for diagnostics, vaccines and therapies."
The main point of concern for mutations is if they affect SARS-CoV-2's spike protein, which is the main target for many of the world's leading vaccines. The spike protein allows a virus to bind to a host cell, which it then infects.
Hibberd says the mutations seen so far are "an early warning", and urges researchers globally to keep an eye on mutations, to ensure they are picked up and don't render future vaccines ineffective.
"Even if these mutations are not important for vaccines, other mutations might be and we need to maintain our surveillance so we are not caught out by deploying a vaccine that only works against some strains."
So far, 4.17 million people have been infected by coronavirus worldwide, with 285,000 people dying from the disease. These numbers are anticipated to rise until a vaccine is found.