New coronavirus variant identified in New York

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Illustration of changing genetic structure to new strain. (Getty Images)

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NEW YORK (NewsNation Now) — A new coronavirus variant that could be more transmissible and intractable than the traditional strain is on the rise in New York City, researchers said on Wednesday.

Two studies — one from Columbia University and another from the California Institute of Technology — identified the new variant as B.1.526. Outside experts have reviewed neither study.

The new variant, which shares similarities with that of one discovered first in South Africa, was first identified in samples collected in New York in November. By mid-February, it represented about 12% of cases, researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons said on Wednesday.

The Columbia researchers said an analysis of publicly available databases did not show a high prevalence of coronavirus variants recently identified in South Africa and Brazil in case samples from New York City and surrounding areas.

“Instead, we found high numbers of this home-grown lineage,” Dr. Anne-Catrin Uhlemann, assistant professor in the division of infectious diseases at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, said in a statement to Reuters.

The Columbia study found that B.1.526 shares some worrying characteristics with B.1.351, the variant first identified in South Africa, and P.1., which was first identified in Brazil. Several studies have suggested that those new variants are more resistant to some existing vaccines than earlier versions of the coronavirus.

The researchers said the main concern is a change in one area of the virus’s spike protein, called E484K, present in all three variants. The E484K mutation is believed to weaken the body’s immune response to the virus.

California Institute of Technology detected the variant using a software tool they developed for quickly examining spike mutations.

“Using this tool, we detected an emerging lineage of viral isolates in the New York region that shares mutations with previously reported variants,” researchers said.

The Columbia study was not publicly available as of Wednesday evening.

Studies have shown that recently launched coronavirus vaccines are still likely to neutralize the virus and protect against severe illness, even for infections with new variants. Vaccine makers are also working to develop booster shots to combat mutated versions of the virus.

Reporting by Deena Beasley and Reuters.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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