New Variant Detected in New York Could Pose Challenge For COVID Therapies and Vaccines
COVID-19 vaccine administered in mid January at the Jacob K. Javits Center in New York City, which has been converted into a vaccination site.

A new COVID-19 virus variant recently detected in New York is “surging alarmingly,” according to the authors of two new pre-print studies by two teams of US researchers, from Columbia University and the California Institute of Technology. 

Even worse, the new variant, dubbed B.1.526, shares some key mutations in its “spike” protein structure with several other major variants of concern – which may enhance the SARS-CoV2 virus’ ability to evade the immune system and reduce vaccine efficacy.

The studies also predict that the variant is already on its way to becoming the predominant viral variant in New York and in the broader Northeast region of the United States. 

The most recent study – published by the Columbia University team on Thursday – which tested 1,142 samples from patients at the University’s Irving Medical Center, found that those infected with the new variant were on average six years older – and more frequently hospitalized than those infected with the original strain of SARS-CoV2. 

The B.1.526 variant first emerged in November 2020 and a steady increase in the detection rate was noted in the study – with an “alarming rise” of 12.3% in the past two weeks.

Mutations Can Give Variants ‘Evolutionary Fitness Advantage’

“As mutations develop, one of those variants may have an evolutionary fitness advantage allowing it to predominate over its ancestral virus and outcompete other variants,” Stephen Morse, Professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, told Health Policy Watch.

Notably, the new variant identified in New York contains a key mutation in its spike protein, called the E484K mutation, which is also present in the B.1.1.7 and B1.351 variants, first detected in the United Kingdom and South Africa respectively. 

This mutation has been linked to reduced activity of neutralizing antibodies; studies have thus reported lower protective efficacy of vaccines against the variants with the E484K mutation. 

E484K has emerged in at least 59 lineages of SARS-CoV2, which is evident of convergent evolution – meaning it appeared in variants that evolved independently from each other. This may signal that the mutation is advantageous for the virus. 

According to the Columbia researchers, the B.1.526 variant “could threaten the efficacy of current antibody therapies and vaccines.”

“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 variant,” David Ho, head of the Columbia University study, told CNN

“However, we don’t have enough data to firm up this point now,” he added.

Another Worrying Mutation Detected By Researchers

A separate pre-print study, led by researchers at the California Institute of Technology and published on Tuesday, used a variant database to detect the same emerging B.1.526 virus variant. The study found that as of February, the variant accounted for 25% of the COVID-19 genomes sequences in the state of New York. 

Among the other mutations identified in this B.1.526 variant, the CIT researchers detected another, the S477N mutation, which occurs near the binding site of multiple antibodies and has been associated with increased viral infectivity in previous virus lineages. 

“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,” Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, told the New York Times

Basic Public Health Measures Critical To Curb Variant Evolution 

“As long as the virus continues to circulate, variants will continue to emerge, and we don’t know what future variants may do,” said Morse. “We can reduce this risk by preventing viral transmission.”

This can be done by maintaining compliance with public health measures – masks, distancing, ventilation and hand hygiene – “at very least until everyone in the world is effectively vaccinated,” Morse said. 

Several experts, including the researchers involved with the Columbia University study, agree that systematic national and global genomic surveillance is needed to detect the variants in a more coordinated and consistent manner.

The UK, where the B.1.1.7 variant is widespread, has a program to sequence 10% of its positive SARS-CoV2 samples, which has assisted with the tracking of the variant. The United States, by contrast, is sequencing less than 1% of samples.

“There are probably far more variants already out there than we know about,” said Morse. “Luckily for us, they haven’t taken over the world yet, but we really do need systematic and meaningful global genomic surveillance.” 

Image Credits: Flickr – New York National Guard, Flickr – Metropolitan Transport Authority.

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