Genomics researchers have named the variant B.1.526. It appears in people affected in diverse neighborhoods of New York City, they said, and is “scattered in the Northeast.”
It’s “home grown, presumably in New York,” Dr. David Ho, Director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Columbia, who led the study team, said by email.
Viruses mutate all the time. The more people who are infected, and the longer they are infected, the more chance the viruses have to change. A patient’s body will be loaded with billions of copies of a virus, and may will be slightly changed, or mutated. Most will come and go.
But sometimes a mutation or pattern of mutations takes hold and gets passed along. If viruses with such patterns become more common, they’re called variants. Again, it’s not unusual for variants to arise but if they give the virus worrying properties, such as better transmissibility or the ability to evade treatments and vaccines, that’s when doctors start to worry.
The mutation in this variant that most concerns researchers is called E484K and it gives the virus the ability to slip past some of the body’s immune response, as well as the authorized monoclonal antibody treatments. This mutation is popping up independently in many different cases but appears in one particular variant, as well — the one called B.1.526.
“It is this novel variant that is surging, alarmingly, in our patient population over the past few weeks,” the Columbia team wrote in a copy of their report provided to CNN.
“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,” Ho told CNN.
“However, we don’t have enough data to firm up this point now.”
But the E484K mutation is seen in at least 59 different lineages of coronavirus, they said — which means it is evolving independently across the nation and across the world in a phenomenon known as convergent evolution. It may give the virus an advantage.
“Everything we know about this key mutation suggests that it appears to escape from antibody pressure,” Ho said.