Scientists worry about a COVID variant that might be resistant to antibodies

texas a&m antibody resistant variant covid
Photo via Denise Mattox/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Texas A&M University researchers have discovered a new antibody-resistant variant of COVID-19 in a sample taken from a student at the school, believed to be related to the B.1.1.7 strain that originated in the United Kingdom.

According to the university’s news site, Texas A&M Today, scientists at the school’s Global Health Research Complex (GHRC) say that the variant, named BV-1 for the Brazos Valley region where A&M is located, has only been found in that one student, as of April 27. That student presented with mild, cold-like symptoms which have since resolved.

As CNBC reported, the case was found via Texas A&M’s routine coronavirus screening process. The student tested positive for COVID-19 on March 5 and again tested positive on March 25, an indication that BV-1 may cause lengthier infections than other variants. The student’s symptoms resolved by April 2, and the student’s third test on April 9 was negative.

Scientists said that experiments from other labs showed, according to CNBC, that “several neutralizing antibodies had no effect in controlling other variants with the same genetic markers as BV-1.” That’s led scientists to hypothesize that this COVID variant might be antibody-resistant.

“We do not at present know the full significance of this variant, but it has a combination of mutations similar to other internationally notifiable variants of concern,” said GHRC Chief Virologist Ben Neuman. “This variant combines genetic markers separately associated with rapid spread, severe disease, and high resistance to neutralizing antibodies.”

Researchers determined, based on its genetic sequencing, that it’s a new variant of COVID-19, but they reported that it does have similarities to the B.1.1.7 variant.

They’re taking steps to document what they’ve found, submitting a paper on BV-1 to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as depositing its sequence data on BV-1 with GISAID, the Munich-based science initiative that collects the thousands of SARS-CoV-2 sequences from around the world.

As the CNBC article pointed out, the related B.1.1.7 variant—which the current vaccines can still control—is now the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States.

“While many U.S. labs limit sequencing to severe COVID-19 cases,” the university’s article noted, “Texas A&M is casting a wider net, including asymptomatic students, to find concerning variants before they cause severe illnesses.”

Neuman emphasized that this wider investigation and information sharing will arm scientists and public health officials with as much information as possible to limit transmission.

“Sequencing helps to provide an early warning system for new variants,” Neuman said. “Though we may not yet understand the full significance of BV-1, the variant highlights an ongoing need for rigorous surveillance and genomic testing, including among young adults with no symptoms or only mild symptoms.”

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Sources: Texas A&M Today, CNBC

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