Crew members on a cargo ship forced to anchor off Queensland’s Sunshine Coast were infected with a mutated strain of coronavirus undetected elsewhere in the world, health officials say.

Key points:Five cases of COVID-19 have been linked to the Sofrana Surville ship, including two crew membersGenomic testing of the virus shows the strain has never been recorded beforeNew Zealand health authorities say the virus is 12 mutations away from other strains

The Liberian-flagged Sofrana Surville and its 19 crew were stopped from docking at the Port of Brisbane after arriving in Queensland waters in late October via New Caledonia.

Eight crew had joined the ship in New Zealand at the Port of Auckland on October 13 from the Philippines, the same day an engineer carried out work onboard while wearing personal protective equipment.

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New Zealand health authorities first raised the alarm after he returned a positive COVID-19 result. He has since recovered.

The New Zealand Government said genomic testing of the strain, which also infected two other maritime workers, had not previously been detected locally.

When the cargo ship arrived off Mooloolaba, two seafarers tested positive to coronavirus and were taken to the Sunshine Coast University Hospital for treatment.

MV Sofrana Surville is anchored off the Sunshine Coast.(Supplied: myshiptracking.com)

Further genomic testing in Brisbane confirmed they had a mutated strain of COVID-19 that was different from other strains recorded around the world.

The results were then passed on to New Zealand authorities.

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A New Zealand Health spokeswoman said the strain was “not closely related to any internationally-reported genomes to date”.

The spokeswoman said it had likely originated from an area where genomic testing was rare.

Testing by New Zealand scientists found it was “12 mutations away from the closest international genome”.

‘All viruses change’

University of Queensland infectious diseases expert Paul Griffin said the changes were surprising given the virus appeared to mutate more slowly than others.

“But it will change spontaneously over time,” Dr Griffin said.

“Obviously, there’s a very large number of cases so we’re looking at this virus a lot more than ever before.”

Dr Griffin said the genomic sequencing was a technology that had only recently become more widely available.

Dr Paul Griffin says all viruses mutate and it is not a sign it is becoming more or less dangerous.(Supplied: Dr Griffin)

He said the changes in the virus did not necessarily suggest it was becoming more or less dangerous.

“There’s been a lot of misinformation circulating about this virus. All viruses change,” Dr Griffin said.

“The biggest implications we might see from the evolution of this virus is that we need to adapt our vaccine and potentially have a few strains in that, but we’re certainly not at that point yet.

“If we have to adapt our vaccines to combat new strains, that’s something we can fairly easily do.”

The crew of the Sofrana Surville has been tested repeatedly since arriving in Queensland waters, with all members returning negative results.

The two seafarers who contracted COVID-19 on the ship have since recovered and are expected to re-join the ship once it is given the all-clear to set sail from the Sunshine Coast.

No other cases of coronavirus in Queensland have been linked to the ship.

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