Researchers in Ohio say they’ve discovered two new variants of the coronavirus local to the U.S. that may be of concern. One variant appears to contain a mutation found in other troubling variants, while the other has started to spread fast in Columbus, Ohio over the last month and carries its own unique mix of mutations. The scientists believe that the Columbus variant is likely more contagious than past existing strains, though they caution little is still known about it.
The variants were found by researchers at The Ohio State University. Since March 2020, OSU’s Wexner Medical Centre has been mapping the genome of coronavirus strains collected from covid-19 patients in the area. Viruses often mutate, and usually, these mutations do not change how disease-causing viruses spread or infect their human hosts. But the researchers say they’ve come across two variants that could be trouble.
One variant, so far only found in a single patient, carries a key mutation that is also found in the B.1.1.7 variant, first spotted in the UK last September. B.1.1.7 has rapidly spread throughout the UK since December and is strongly believed to be more transmissible than earlier variants. The researchers believe that the mutation independently showed up in the U.S. variant, from strains of the virus circulating in the area already. Because the variant has only been seen in a single case, it’s not known if and how common it is in the general population.
The second variant may be even more worrying. From mid-December to January, OSU researchers have seen it pop up more often in their sampling from patients in Columbus, Ohio, to the point where it’s now the dominant variant detected in new cases. That suggests that it’s outcompeting other local strains. This Columbus variant is also unique to the U.S., the researchers say, and carries a combination of three mutations on its spike protein not previously documented before. These mutations are likely making the variant more contagious, they suspect.
The OSU team cautions that much is unknown about either variant. And though they plan to publish their preliminary findings in the preprint website BioRxiv soon, their data for now has not been seen and evaluated by outside scientists. Even if these findings are as real as they appear, it will take time to understand the potential added risks the new variants could pose.
“It’s important that we don’t overreact to this new variant until we obtain additional data,” said Peter Mohler, a co-author of the upcoming paper and chief scientific officer at the Wexner Medical Centre, in a statement released by OSU. “We need to understand the impact of mutations on transmission of the virus, the prevalence of the strain in the population and whether it has a more significant impact on human health.”
As with other variants seen recently, the OSU researchers do not suspect right now that these Ohio variants would greatly impact the effectiveness of existing vaccines and treatments in development. So far, no variants have been found more likely to cause serious illness or death, though their added transmissibility will likely lead to more cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in areas where they become established.
If nothing else, though, these latest discoveries highlight the danger of a widely spreading pandemic. The more cases of covid-19 there are in an area, the more likely that concerning mutations could emerge and quickly spread in turn. With the country still experiencing incredibly high levels of new cases, the possibility that things could get even worse than they are now is still very real.