Scientists at Ohio State University have discovered a new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 — and also found the evolution of another US strain with three gene mutations not previously seen together in the illness.
The researchers at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center and College of Medicine said the new variant carries a mutation identical to the UK strain, but it likely arose in a strain already present in the US.
The medical center has been sequencing the virus genome in infected patients since March 2020 in order to monitor the evolution of the bug, according to a press release.
“The new variant was discovered in one patient from Ohio, so researchers do not yet know the prevalence of the strain in the population,” it said.
“In contrast, the evolving strain with the three new mutations has become the dominant virus in Columbus during a three week period in late December 2020 and January,” the statement added.
Dr. Dan Jones, vice chairman of the division of molecular pathology and study leader, said the “new Columbus strain has the same genetic backbone as earlier cases we’ve studied, but these three mutations represent a significant evolution.
“We know this shift didn’t come from the UK or South African branches of the virus,” he added.
“Like the UK strain, mutations detected in both viruses affect the spikes that stud the surface of SARS-Cov-2. The spikes enable the virus to attach to and enter human cells,” according to the release.
“Also like the UK strain, the mutations in the Columbus strain are likely to make the virus more infectious, making it easier for the virus to pass from person to person,” it said.
Study co-author Peter Mohler, chief scientific officer at Wexner Medical Center, said: “The big question is whether these mutations will render vaccines and current therapeutic approaches less effective.
“At this point, we have no data to believe that these mutations will have any impact on the effectiveness of vaccines now in use,” Mohler said.
“It’s important that we don’t overreact to this new variant until we obtain additional data,” he continued. “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.”
Mohler added that “it is critical that we continue to monitor the evolution of the virus so we can understand the impact of the mutant forms on the design of both diagnostics and therapeutics. It is critical that we make decisions based on the best science.”
The researchers said the discovery of the Columbus variant – called COH.20G/501Y — suggests that the same mutation may be occurring independently in several parts of the globe in the past few months.
“Viruses naturally mutate and evolve over time, but the changes seen in the last two months have been more prominent than in the first months of the pandemic,” said Jones, whose team has been conducting Ohio State’s genetic sequencing on environmental and patient samples.