Coronavirus: scientists learn more about first Covid-19 cases in UAE

The virus appears slow to mutate and first UAE cases are likely to have originated from Europe, China and Iran

A microscope image of the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (yellow) emerging from the surface of cells (blue/pink) cultured in a lab. AP
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Scientists in the UAE have warned against complacency in response to Covid-19 as they begin to unlock new information on the virus.

Experts in the country have studied the genetic makeup of the first 240 people to be infected in the Emirates in an effort to understand more.

Establishing a detailed picture of the genetic sequence of the new coronavirus could help identify how effective a potential vaccine might be.

Significantly, researchers found that the virus in their study was relatively stable, increasing the chances of a vaccine lasting for longer periods.

“Detailed information of the genetic sequence of each individual was collected as well as clinical information to understand the genetics of the virus,” said Professor Alawi Alsheikh-Ali, a member of the Emirates Scientist Council and provost at the Mohammed bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences (MBRU) in Dubai.

One cluster showed sequences similar to those in Europe while another was similar to those seen in Iran.

“That data could be compared with the genome sequencing recorded and published in Wuhan, China, in late December.

“This information helps scientist understand more about the genetic background of the virus and track transmission of the disease.”

The results of the new research has helped shed light on how coronavirus entered the UAE.

The first case in the country, a 73-year-old Chinese woman, was announced on January 29. She was released on February 9 after recovering.

Experts said they had uncovered “multiple” introductions of the virus to the UAE, with resulting cluster patterns similar to other countries.

They also found most of the infected patients only showed mild symptoms or were asymptomatic.

Those who presented with more serious symptoms tended to be older, male and had underlying health conditions.

“We found multiple introductions of the virus into the country,” said Dr Ahmad Abou Tayoun, associate professor of Genetics at MBRU and director of the Genomics Centre at Al Jalila Children’s Speciality Hospital.

“One cluster showed sequences similar to those in Europe while another was similar to those seen in Iran.

“A few patients had an Asian background as their sequence clustered with the early cases recorded in China.

“The main finding is we had multiple introductions into the country, as expected with Dubai being such an international hub.”

Dr Tom Loney, an epidemiologist at MBRU, said more research was required to understand if different strains of Covid-19 could be more deadly than others.

Further study is also needed to establish whether those who have caught the virus and recovered build up any immunity and for how long.

“We don’t yet understand if the different variations in the virus is linked to it being more infectious or that it is easier to transmit,” said Dr Loney.

“For the virus to survive it needs to infect more people before it kills them off.

“We will continue our research to see if other strains are related to more serious health outcomes.”