New Coronavirus variant in New York spurs warning and concern

NEW YORK (AP) – Another mutant version of the coronavirus has emerged in New York City, and experts responded to the news with a mixture of caution and concern.

The new variant first appeared in the New York area in late November and has since surfaced in neighboring states, according to researchers from the California Institute of Technology, one of two teams sharing their work this week.

How problematic the variant might be is not yet known. Viruses are constantly mutating – or typing errors in their genetic code – as they spread and make copies of themselves.

“Most are not particularly worrying,” said Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London.

However, he added, “It is useful to spot them early, flag them, and raise concerns.”

This is because some genetic improvements can be worrying, especially if they help make the virus easier to spread, become more deadly, or make vaccines less effective. Scientists use genome sequencing and other research to figure out which are a potential problem.

New York health officials and Mayor Bill de Blasio tried Thursday to allay worries about the new variant, stressing that the new research was preliminary and little was known about the variant.

“Some variants are just that, they are variants.” said Dr. Jay Varma, Senior Health Advisor to the Mayor.

WHAT CAN YOU FIND IN NEW YORK?

Two research groups – at Caltech and Columbia University in New York – published articles this week describing their findings on the new variant. None of the papers have been published or reviewed by other scientists.

The Caltech researchers found that the new variant appeared in about a quarter of the 1,200 virus sequences they looked at this month. The variant has also surfaced in New Jersey and Connecticut and has made “isolated appearances across the country,” said Anthony West of CalTech, co-author of the paper.

On Thursday, Columbia University researchers released their research examining approximately 1,100 virus samples from patients treated at the university’s medical center dating back to November. By the second week of February, the new variant was identified in 12% of the samples, they reported. They also found that patients infected with the mutated virus were more likely to be older and hospitalized.

The story goes on

Both groups found that the new variant had a mutation that could potentially make vaccines less effective – a mutation seen in other variants of concern.

“There is clearly something to watch out for,” said Balloux.

HOW MANY OTHER VARIANTS ARE THERE?

New variants have emerged during the pandemic, but three are considered to be the most worrying – they have been labeled as “worrying variants”. They were first discovered in the UK, South Africa and Brazil, but have spread to other countries.

The one identified in the UK late last year was found in 45 US states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The strain is worrying because it has so many mutations, nearly two dozen. Some are on the spiky protein the virus uses to attach to and infect cells – and which current vaccines and antibody drugs are targeting.

One of the spike protein mutations can be seen in the variants discovered early in Brazil and South Africa, and now in the new variant in New York.

A variant that has spread in California is also getting attention. It was found in 40% to 50% of the samples examined by the Los Angeles Count Department of Public Health, according to director Barbara Ferrer. However, there isn’t enough rigorous research to determine what, if any, impact the mutations might have.

WHAT’S NEXT?

After what many called a slow start, the federal government has been stepping up its genetic sequencing in recent weeks to look for virus variants and study them to find out which ones could be a problem. Meanwhile, Ana S. Gonzalez Reiche, a virologist at the Icahn School of Medicine on Mount Sinai, urged caution.

“Without evidence, we don’t need to worry about every variant discovered,” she said.

Studies give cause for concern that first-generation COVID-19 vaccines against a variant first introduced in South Africa do not work as well as against other versions. In response, pharmaceutical companies are already thinking about how to modify their vaccines.

Experts say that in the meantime, public health measures like social distancing and masks will reduce the chances for the coronavirus to further mutate and become widespread.

“Variants will come up,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, told NBC on Thursday. “The trick is when they occur to prevent them from spreading.”

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The Associated Press Department of Health and Science is supported by the Department of Science Education of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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