A Worrying Mutant Strain Of Covid-19 Has Been Found In NYC

Matt Lillywhite

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This week, two independent teams of U.S. researchers said they discovered a troubling new form of coronavirus in New York City and elsewhere in the Northeast that bears mutations that help evade the normal immune response of the body—as well as the results of therapies with monoclonal antibodies.

The variant B.1.526 has been named by genomics researchers. It occurs in individuals afflicted in different New York City communities, they added, and is "scattered in the Northeast."

One of the mutations in this form is the same as in the variant first seen in South Africa and known as B.1.351 with regard to mutation. It seems to evade, somewhat, the reaction of the body to vaccines, as well. And it is getting more widespread.

"We observed a steady increase in the detection rate from late December to mid-February, with an alarming rise to 12.7 per cent in the past two weeks,"  one team at Columbia University Medical Center wrote in a paper that has yet to be released, but this week's pre-print edition is expected to appear.

It is the latest of the increasing number of viral variants that have appeared in the U.S., which has seen more coronavirus cases—28 million—than any other country, and where the spread is still serious.

Dr. David Ho, Director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Columbia, who headed the study team, said by email, "It is home grown, presumably in New York."

All the time, viruses mutate. The more people are infected and the longer they are infected, the more likely it is that the viruses will change. The body of a patient will be filled with billions of virus copies, which could be subtly altered or mutated.

But a mutation or pattern of mutations takes place occasionally and gets passed around. They're named variants if viruses with those trends become more prevalent. Again, mutations do not occur uncommonly, but whether they offer the virus alarming properties, such as improved transmissibility or the potential to resist medications and vaccinations, doctors tend to panic.

E484K is the mutation in this version that most researchers are concerned with and it allows the virus the opportunity to slip through some of the immune response of the body as well as the approved therapies for monoclonal antibodies. In several different instances, this mutation turns up independently, but still occurs in one peculiar variant—the one named B.1.526.

The Columbia team wrote in a copy of their study supplied to CNN, "It is this novel variant that is surging, alarmingly, in our patient population over the past few weeks."

"We find the rate of detection of this new variant is going up over the past few weeks. A concern is that it might be beginning to overtake other strains, just like the UK and South African variants. However, we don't have enough data to firm up this point now."

The E484K mutation is found in at least 59 separate coronavirus lineages, they said—which suggests it evolves in a process known as convergent evolution independently across the nation and across the globe. It can offer an advantage to the virus.

"Everything we know about this key mutation suggests that it appears to escape from antibody pressure," they said.

A team at the California Institute of Technology separately said that they created a software tool that also spotted the growth in New York of B.1.526.  "It appears that the frequency of lineage B.1.526 has increased rapidly in New York," they wrote in a pre-print, a paper that has not been peer-reviewed but has been released online.

Two teams posted on Tuesday on another version that seems to be on the rise in California. They are concerned that the variant may not only be more infectious, but may also induce more serious illness. Their thesis is in its very early stages, has not been published or peer reviewed, and requires further analysis, as with the New York studies.

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