In the aftermath of the United Kingdom’s experience with a new and more virulent mutation of the novel cornavirus, more countries have started genomic surveillance to identify and hopefully contain gene mutations that could make the virus even deadlier.
Now, the US—the world’s worst-affected country by far with over 200,000 new cases a day—has identified two new mutations of the virus in Ohio. One has been dubbed the “Columbus strain”, it was identified by researchers at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Centre and College of Medicine. It is believed to have been circulating in the city of Columbus since September.
“This new Columbus strain has the same genetic backbone as earlier cases we’ve studied, but these three mutations represent a significant evolution,” said study leader Dr. Dan Jones, vice chair of the division of molecular pathology. “We know this shift didn’t come from the U.K. or South African branches of the virus.”
Like the U.K. 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. Also like the U.K. 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, the university said in a press release.
The new variant has already become the dominant strain in Columbus, Ohio, over a three-week period in late December 2020 and January.
The researchers also reported the evolution of another U.S. strain that acquired three other gene mutations not previously seen together in SARS-CoV2.
“The big question is whether these mutations will render vaccines and current therapeutic approaches less effective,” said Peter Mohler, a co-author of the study and chief scientific officer at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center and vice dean for research at the College of Medicine. “At this point, we have no data to believe that these mutations will have any impact on the effectiveness of vaccines now in use.”
“It’s important that we don’t overreact to this new variant until we obtain additional data,” Mohler said. “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. Further, 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 scientists said that discovery of the Columbus variant, COH.20G/501Y, suggests that the same mutation may be occurring independently in multiple parts of the world during the past few months.
The findings are still under review and have been published as a pre-print in BioRxiv.
The US now requires a negative COVID-19 test for all passengers arriving from abroad.
The more-infectious strain of the coronavirus identified in the UK has already surfaced in several countries across the world.