Mutation, Adaptation, and Virus Genomes – A Primer for the Public

W.P. Hanage and Xueting Qiu

Translation in Mandarin available here.

A novel coronavirus is spreading in central China, with exported cases reported in countries around the globe. There is substantial uncertainty surrounding the rate of spread and the mortality associated with disease, although it is clear that human to human transmission has been happening for months. Some authorities are now stating it is ‘likely’ that this will be declared a pandemic. In the face of a churning news cycle and unverified and frightening reporting the public is understandably anxious.

Recent news reports have included speculation that the novel coronavirus is ‘mutating’ and ‘evolving’ amid increasing concern that the outbreak could present an even more significant threat than it does already. At present there is no evidence to think that this is the case. The following is to help the public understand what scientists are looking for when they examine viral sequences, and what you can and cannot tell from such data.





Further chewing on the sequence data

  1. Available 2019-nCoV sequence phylogeny and mutations:
  2. Situation report:
  3. Andrew Rambaut is regularly updating his analysis through his blog at This is a link to his most recent Phylodynamic Analysis with 56 genomes: