Double Mutation COVID-19 Variant Likely Already in Illinois

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

According to health experts, the new double mutation variant first discovered in California is likely already circulating in Illinois.
What's being called the "Double Mutant" variant first found in India, thought to be in IllinoisTasnim News Agency (CC BY 4.0)

A new "double mutation" variant of the COVID-19 virus that was first discovered in December in India and in the U.S. in California could already be in Illinois, according to Cook County health officials. It is thought to be the first of its kind in the United States.

"Is it circulating here? Probably," Dr. Rachel Rubin, co-lead of the Cook County Department of Public Health, said during a news conference about increasing cases of COVID-19 virus mutations. "It might be here, but we don't know yet. I mean we're just beginning to expand- the state and CDC are beginning to expand, they're testing for variants, and so we'll know soon whether we have it circulating in Illinois."

Rubin added that the emergence of this new variant is very concerning. She said that an official determination could arrive "in the coming days."

What is the “Double Mutant” Variant of COVID-19?

Officially, the variant has been named B.1.617, but many, including the media, have referred to the variant as the "double mutant." That's because B.1.617 has two key mutations that have cropped up in two other major strains.

Technically the SARS-CoV-2 virus is constantly mutating so there are many “double mutants” out there. Like the other variants that are worrisome, B.1.617 contains not just two mutations, but more than a dozen.

The reason the term “double mutant" is used is because of two of these mutations in particular. B.1.617 has a mutation (labeled L452R) that's found in the dominant strain in California. It also has a mutation (called E484Q) that is similar to the one that exists in the variants first identified in South Africa and Brazil (that mutation is called E484K).

So, B.1.617 has two "famous" mutations. But it also has at least 11 other ones.

How Serious is the “Double Mutation” Variant?

This particular variant is highly contagious it’s strong ability to bind with human cells increases its ability to replicate. Similar to the U.K. and South African variants this variant has been shown to lower the effectiveness of antibodies triggered by a vaccine or a previous Covid-19 infection.

There is a lot of concern about B.1.617 as almost 60% of all positive cases in India currently have been attributed to this variant.

According to Bloomberg, the L452R mutation has been well studied in the U.S. It has been shown to increase transmission by about 20% and to reduce antibody efficacy by more than 50%. This suggests a decrease vaccine efficacy, but reports from Israel suggest that at least one of the vaccines still offers some protection against it. There is some evidence that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine “has efficacy against it, albeit a reduced efficacy.” There is no data on the variant’s viral load.

Dr. Dean Winslow from Stanford University said that those who have been fully vaccinated will likely be okay. “Most people will mount an immune response,” he said. “Maybe it will not protect against an all-out infection but at least it will protect against moderate or severe disease.”

In recent weeks Illinois and Chicago have seen a rise in all COVID metrics. Chicago health experts have noted the spread of the U.K. variant has been growing in the city, though other variants have also been discovered in the city and state. There has been an increase in cases by over 200 percent in at least seven suburban Chicago communities including Glencoe, Northridge, Riverside, Robbins, Harvey Lynwood and Berkeley.

"We are considering tightening up the required mitigations again if the trend continues," Rubin said.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the double mutant Covid variant (B1617) has spread to 'at least 17 countries'. Most cases identified to date have come from India, followed by the UK, the US and Singapore.

Learn more about the Double Mutant Coronovirus variant:

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