Ohio researchers said on Wednesday they had discovered two new variants of the coronavirus possibly originating in the United States – one of which quickly became the dominant strain in Columbus, Ohio, over a three-week period late December and early January.
Like the strain first detected in the UK, the US mutations appear to make Covid-19 more contagious but do not appear to decrease the effectiveness of vaccines, the researchers said.
Researchers at Ohio State University have yet to release their full results, but said an unpaired peer-reviewed study is forthcoming. Jason McDonald, spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a statement to TBEN that the agency is reviewing the new research.
One of the new strains, found in a single patient in Ohio, contains a mutation identical to the now dominant variant in the UK, the researchers said, noting that it “likely originated in a viral strain already present. in the USA.” However, the “Columbus strain”, which the researchers said in a press release has become dominant in the city, includes “three other genetic mutations never before seen together in SARS-CoV2.”
“This new strain of Columbus has the same genetic backbone as the previous cases we studied, but these three mutations represent a significant evolution,” Dr. Dan Jones, vice president of the division of molecular pathology at Ohio State and senior author of the study, said in a statement. “We know this change did not come from the British or South African branches of the virus.”
Researchers at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center have been sequencing the virus since March, but have since significantly stepped up efforts to sequence hundreds of samples per week, Jones told reporters during a press briefing Wednesday. He added that he had sent his team’s findings to the Ohio Department of Health, but not yet to the CDC.
“We are now in a period where the virus is evolving in a fairly substantial way,” Jones said. “This is the time, as we start to see changes, where vaccination is introduced and the virus has been present in the human population for a few months, where we want to be very attentive to the emergence of not only unique mutations. , but new strains that have multiple mutations. “
Jones added that it was too early to determine just how more infectious the Columbus strain could be, but researchers believe it is likely more contagious simply because of how quickly it has spread in recent weeks. .
Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, chief medical officer for the Ohio Department of Health, said in a statement to TBEN on Wednesday that the department was “not surprised” that a new strain of the virus was discovered in the state. .
“The arrival of this new strain in Ohio is always of concern because more contagious strains could lead more people to get sick, more people to be hospitalized and, ultimately, more people to die,” he said. he declares. “Regardless of the strain of COVID-19, people can continue to protect themselves by wearing masks consistently, staying at least 6 feet away, avoiding crowds, ventilating indoor spaces and washing themselves. frequently hands.
Peter Mohler, scientific director of the Ohio State Medical Center Wexner and co-author of the upcoming study, said there was no data indicating that either of the new strains will have an impact on the effectiveness of vaccines.
“It is important that we do not overreact to this new variant until we get additional data,” he said in a statement. “We need to understand the impact of mutations on virus transmission, the prevalence of the strain in the population and whether it has a more significant impact on human health.
Mohler said the discovery of the new strains is a testament to the lab’s efforts to speed up genetic sequencing, as the virus appears to mutate faster in recent months. He added that they hope to release data in the coming weeks and are looking to determine whether Covid-19 molecular tests accurately diagnose the new variants.
The White House coronavirus task force warned states earlier this month that there may be an “American variant” in circulation. The hypothesis, which the New York Times said was put forward by task force coordinator Dr Deborah Birx, was based on the severity of the US outbreak in recent months. The CDC said in a statement last week that it had yet to detect a new variant in the United States unrelated to previously discovered strains.
Dr Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security, said it was difficult to assess the significance of the findings without seeing the data.
Researchers have warned that as the virus spreads widely around the world, it has more opportunities to scale, potentially becoming more infectious or making treatments and vaccines less effective. Following the discovery of new strains in the UK and South Africa, the CDC has stepped up efforts to track the genetic sequence of the virus in the US.
Dr Greg Armstrong, director of the CDC’s Office of Advanced Molecular Detection, said last month the agency was contracting with academic centers across the country to sequence samples and search for new variants locally. These centers, he says, are in Boston, New Haven, Connecticut, Athens, Georgia, Nashville, Tennessee, Madison, Wisconsin and the Scripps Institute in San Diego.
He added that many academic centers across the country have the capacity and expertise to sequence samples of the virus and are stepping up their efforts to do so.