Hyrax Biosciences releases a tool to detect mutations in the coronavirus behind COVID-19

Hyrax Biosciences, a South African company initially known for its work in HIV, has released an easy-to-use online software tool that detects mutations in SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen behind the COVID-19 pandemic.

The tool, Exatype SARS-CoV-2, will be used worldwide to track how the virus evolves as it spreads.

Why is Exatype SARS-CoV-2 needed?

As a virus spreads from person to person, it mutates. These mutations largely do not change how the virus operates, although this is a possibility and their detection is therefore crucial to drug and vaccine development efforts. Mutations can also be used to track transmission of the virus from person to person.

How does Exatype testing work?

When a sample from the lungs of a patient suspected to have COVID-19 arrives in the lab, the RNA of the virus can be extracted from the sample. The viral RNA is copied to DNA (cDNA) and is then sequenced using a DNA sequencing machine. These machines produce large quantities of messy, complex data, which would usually require painstaking expert analysis. Hyrax Biosciences’ Exatype SARS-CoV-2 removes the need for this expert, meaning that samples can be processed faster and more consistently.

Exatype SARS-CoV-2 processes the raw data, and reports mutations in the viral cDNA unique to that patient's infection. This report indicates whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus was present and, if so, what mutations appeared in that particular strain, compared against the original virus strain extracted from an individual in Wuhan.

Why are mutations important?

Mutations may affect the function of the virus, including its infectivity. Most mutations, however, are understood by researchers as evolutionary ‘background noise’ with no meaningful function. Exatype SARS-CoV-2 allows for careful tracking of both classes of mutations. This can not only point to the origins of a particular viral strain, but can also influence how a drug, or indeed the human immune system, recognises the virus.

Where will Exatype SARS-CoV-2 be used?

Exatype SARS-CoV-2 will be used worldwide, including in South Africa, to track the COVID-19 pandemic as it evolves. All data analysed will be made publicly available for free, with the aim of assisting drug and vaccine development, as well as transmission tracking.

More about Hyrax Biosciences

Hyrax Biosciences (hyraxbio.com) was founded in 2015 by a team of researchers at the University of the Western Cape. Their product, Exatype, is a generic platform for the analysis of DNA sequencing data.

Exatype can be adapted to a novel pathogen such as SARS-CoV-2 in a matter of weeks. The platform was originally developed to enable HIV drug-resistance testing, and has been expanded to TB and oncology applications.

The company was runner-up in the 2016 Innovation Prize for Africa awards for their work on HIV drug-resistance testing using Exatype.