The study by the University College London Genetics Institute also identified 198 recurrent genetic mutations of the coronavirus — though it’s unclear if the changes are rendering the virus more dangerous.
The researchers analyzed the virus genomes of over 7,500 patients infected around the world to draw their results, according to a UCL press release announcing the study, which was published Tuesday in the journal Infection, Genetics and Evolution.
A large proportion of the coronavirus’ global genetic diversity was found in all countries with the largest outbreaks, suggesting vast worldwide transmission when the virus emerged in late 2019, according to the release.
Co-lead author and UCL Professor Francois Balloux told CNN that doctors are actually hoping research determines the coronavirus emerged earlier than late last year, thus increasing the likelihood of larger immune populations.
“This rules out any scenario that assumes SARSCoV-2 may have been in circulation long before it was identified, and hence have already infected large proportions of the population,” Balloux’s team wrote.
“Everyone was hoping for that. I was too,” Balloux told the network.
Balloux also noted the number of mutations is not an immediate cause for alarm.
“All viruses naturally mutate,” he said in a statement.
“Mutations in themselves are not a bad thing and there is nothing to suggest SARS-CoV-2 is mutating faster or slower than expected. So far we cannot say whether SARS-CoV-2 is becoming more or less lethal and contagious.”