SARS-CoV-2 is the virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, which began in late 2019 and has resulted in millions of death globally. The need to understand the pandemic means that detailed descriptions of features of this virus are now of interest to non-expert audiences. In particular, there has been much public interest in the spike protein that protrudes from the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus particle. The spike is the major determinant of viral infectivity and the main target for protective immune responses, and included in vaccines, and so its properties influence the impact of the pandemic on people’s lives. This protein is rapidly evolving, with mutations that enhance transmissibility or weaken vaccine protection creating new variants of concern (VOCs) and associated sub-lineages. The spread of SARS-CoV-2 VOCs has been tracked by groups such as the COVID-19 Genomics UK consortium (COG-UK). Their online mutation explorer (COG-UK/ME), which analyses and shares SARS-CoV-2 sequence data, contains information about VOCs that is designed primarily for an expert audience but is potentially of general interest during a pandemic. We wished to make this detailed information about SARS-CoV-2 VOCs more widely accessible. Previously work has shown that visualisations and interactivity can facilitate active learning and boost engagement with molecular biology topics, while animations of these topics can boost understanding on protein structure, function, and dynamics. We therefore set out to develop an educational graphical resource, the SARS-CoV-2 Spike Protein Mutation Explorer (SSPME), which contains interactive 3D molecular models and animations explaining SARS-CoV-2 spike protein variants and VOCs. We performed user-testing of the original COG-UK/ME website and of the SSPME, using a within-groups design to measure knowledge acquisition and a between-groups design to contrast the effectiveness and usability. Statistical analysis demonstrated that, when compared to the COG-UK/ME, the SSPME had higher usability and significantly improved participant knowledge confidence and knowledge acquisition. The SSPME therefore provides an example of how 3D interactive visualisations can be used for effective science communication and education on complex biomedical topics, as well as being a resource to improve the public understanding of SARS-CoV-2 VOCs.


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Cite as

Iannucci, S., Harvey, W., Hughes, J., Robertson, D., Poyade, M. & Hutchinson, E. 2023, 'The SARS-CoV-2 Spike Protein Mutation Explorer: Using an Interactive Application to Improve the Public Understanding of SARS-CoV-2 Variants of Concern', Journal of Visual Communication in Medicine. https://radar.gsa.ac.uk/8327/

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Last updated: 17 May 2023
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