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New COVID-19 variant with ‘worrisome mutation’ spreading in New York

new york covid variant
Photo via Javier Morales/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Two separate teams of researchers have reported on a new coronavirus variant spreading in New York with a “worrisome mutation” that enables this strain of COVID-19 virus to, as the New York Times characterized it, “dodge the immune system.” 

That paper’s Feb. 24 report notes that the B.1.526 variant of COVID-19, first appearing in samples collected in the city in November, is the subject of a newly-published article from Caltech researchers. It’s also the subject of research from Columbia University that has not yet published its findings. 

According to the Times report, the Caltech team discovered the rise in B.1.526 by scanning for mutations in hundreds of thousands of viral genetic sequences in a database. 

“There was a pattern that was recurring, and a group of isolates concentrated in the New York region that I hadn’t seen,” said Anthony West, a computational biologist at Caltech who co-authored the report.

The Times article reported that West and his colleagues found two variants that have increased: One with the E484K mutation found in South Africa and Brazil that renders vaccines slightly less effective; and another with a mutation known as S477N that might “affect how tightly the virus binds to human cells.”

By mid-February, those two variants, grouped together as B.1.526, accounted for about 27% of New York City viral sequences deposited into the database. 

That was similar to what the Columbia team found, as CNN reported. David Ho, director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Columbia who led that study team, noted that the new variant is “homegrown, presumably in New York.”  

The team noted, “It is this novel variant that is surging, alarmingly, in our patient population over the past few weeks.”

Ho, discussing his team’s report with CNN, noted, “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 U.K. and South African variants.”

Ho told the New York Times that samples came from Westchester County as well as various locations throughout the five boroughs of New York City. 

Other researchers contacted by the publication, unconnected with these studies, expressed concern that these new COVID variant is turning up in New York. 

“Given the involvement of E484K or S477N, combined with the fact that the New York region has a lot of standing immunity from the spring wave, this is definitely one to watch,” said Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego.

“It’s not particularly happy news,” added Michel Nussenzweig, an immunologist at Rockefeller University. “But just knowing about it is good because then we can perhaps do something about it.”

Read more about coronavirus variants:

Sources: New York Times, CNN


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