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A group of Mexican scientists has recently been working on decoding the genome of the new coronavirus which causes the COVID-19 disease. Not only have they been successful, they’ve also discovered that SARS-CoV-2 hasn’t changed much since it left China.

“The virus that’s reached Mexico hasn’t varied much,” explains Joel Armando Vázquez Pérez, a Level ‘D’ medical science researcher from the National Institute of Respiratory Diseases (Instituto Nacional de Enfermedades Respiratorias, INER) and a Level II member of the National Research System (Sistema Nacional de Investigadores, SNI). “So, the vaccine being proposed by different European countries, the United States, or Asian countries could also work for other geographical areas, including Mexico.”

In an interview with Tec Review, Vázquez Pérez explains the process for decoding the genome and its usefulness to the scientific community in Mexico.

What was the process of decoding the new coronavirus like in Mexico?

We started getting ready in the second or third week of January, because we knew that the Covid-19 disease would inevitably spread throughout the world and reach Mexico. A working group was formed by Dr. Gustavo Reyes Terán, head of the Coordinating Commission for National Institutes of Health. This then formed a subgroup of specialists in virology and molecular methodologies for dealing with the virus in Mexico in order to give an immediate response and provide the scientific community with genetic information about the virus when it reached this country.

How is this scientific information from Mexico useful to other countries?

It’s important because, as happens with other viruses (similar to the coronavirus), they change over time and geographical areas. Knowing whether there are substantial changes to the virus’ genome could indicate evolution and we have to be monitoring it constantly. Fortunately, this virus would seem to change less compared to others such as influenza, which has a much higher mutation rate. So, while it’s good news that SARS-CoV-2 (the recent coronavirus outbreak) hasn’t changed much since it left China, it’s important that each country does this job of viral genome sequencing and makes this available to the international scientific community for them to learn about it and evaluate it.

How much progress has Mexico made on decoding the genome compared with other countries and how can this help with developing new vaccines?

We’re very competitive on the basic research front. In fact, we demonstrated this when the first case occurred on February 27. The genome of the first patient’s virus was published within 72 hours. That demonstrates to the community that we’re able to do it.

We’re still behind on making a proposal for a vaccine as a country, but we’re perfectly able to detect and learn about the genome. How this applies to the vaccine is the discovery that we’ve provided to the scientific community: the virus that’s reached Mexico hasn’t varied much. So, the vaccine being proposed by different European countries, the United States, or Asian countries could also work for other geographical areas, including Mexico.

What can people do to look after themselves while they’re waiting for a vaccine to be developed?

As there isn’t a vaccine or any specific antiviral compound against this virus, what remains is what the federal government has been saying since the start: take all the steps that have been repeated ad nauseam on mitigating the disease through isolation and other health measures. That’s what remains to prevent an increase in contagion.

Meanwhile, we continue to work on the basic part, on giving more information about this virus. We’re going to be doing that for the coming weeks and months and giving extensive reports on our progress.

How did the Mexican scientific community respond to this challenge compared with other pandemics such as the influenza pandemic?

The Mexican scientific community is very motivated, very active on different fronts. Some people are working on making devices such as the mechanical ventilators. Despite limited financial resources, CINVESTAV from the National Polytechnic Institute and the UNAM are working on tests for diagnosing and detecting antibodies.

This is just one aspect that we’re reporting on, but there are many researchers working on this. It’s our job and it’s the least we can do now that we have the capacity.

I had the opportunity to do some work on the response to the influenza pandemic in 2009. We were caught off guard then, so there was a lot of disorganization. At least this time, the pandemic was delayed in coming to us. What’s more, thanks to coordination by Dr. Gustavo Reyes Terán, who formed part of this working group, we could coordinate properly and give the best response possible.