A new coronavirus variant spreading in New York City carries a mutation that may reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine, two separate teams of researchers have found.
Scientists at Caltech and Columbia University, who have been scrutinising the genetic material of the virus to see how it is mutating, say the variant, known as B1526, first appeared in samples collected in November.
The Caltech researchers discovered the rise in B1526 by scanning for mutations in hundreds of thousands of viral genetic sequences in a database called GISAID. The new variant accounts for 27 per cent of the viral sequences deposited.
The researchers found two similar versions of the variant: one with the E484K mutation previously seen in the South African variant that is thought to partially diminish the immune response, and another with a mutation called S477N which may affect how tightly the virus binds to human cells. Both are grouped together as B1526.
The E484K mutation was present in about 12 per cent of coronavirus samples that the researchers in Columbia sequenced from 1,142 patients from the university hospital.
The study by Caltech was posted online on Tuesday, but the research by Columbia is not yet available in the public domain. Both studies, however, have not yet been peer-reviewed.
With the new variant spreading rapidly, virologists have raised concerns. “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, who was not involved in the new research efforts, told the New York Times.
The new variant is "home grown, presumably in New York," Dr David Ho, one of the Columbia researchers, was quoted as saying by 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," Dr Ho said.
So far, 500,000 deaths due to coronavirus people have died from coronavirus in the US alone, with a total of 28 million reported cases of infection.