In Oregon, Scientists Find a Virus Variant With a Worrying Mutation

A mutation originally reported in South Africa was discovered in a single sample of the Coronavirus first identified in Britain.

Scientists in Oregon have discovered a homegrown version of the fast-spreading Coronavirus that first appeared in Britain – now with a mutation that may make it less susceptible to vaccines.

So far, only one case of this formidable combination has been reported, but genetic analysis indicated that the variant was acquired in the community rather than arising in the patient.

“We didn’t import this from elsewhere in the world – it occurred spontaneously,” said Brian O’Roak, a geneticist at Oregon Health and Science University. He and his colleagues track variants for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and they have deposited their results in scientific databases.

B.1.1.7, the variant originally identified in Britain, has spread rapidly across the United States, causing at least 2,500 cases in 46 states. The virus is more contagious and more deadly than the original version, and is expected to account for most of the infections in America within a few weeks.

In Oregon, the virus also has a mutation – E484K, or “Eek” – seen in variants of the virus in South Africa, Brazil and New York City.

According to lab studies and clinical trials conducted in South Africa, the Eek mutation blunts the immune system’s response to current vaccines. The vaccines still work, but Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have begun testing new versions of their vaccines designed to defeat the South African variant.

In Britain, scientists have also identified the B.1.1.7 variant with Eek as a “variant of concern”. The virus found in Oregon, however, appears to have evolved independently, according to Doctor.

Doctor and his colleagues identified the variant in coronavirus samples collected across the state by the Oregon State Public Health Lab, including some from a health care outbreak. They analyzed 13 test results, and 10 turned out to be B.1.1.7 alone, and one was combined.

The Eek mutation has been found in forms of the virus all over the world, according to other experts. However, they said the mutation’s occurrence in B.1.1.7 is worth keeping an eye on.

A small number of cases of this variant are reported in Britain. By the time the combination evolved there, B.1.1.7 had already spread throughout the country.

“B.1.1.7 is just being introduced” in the United States, according to Stacia Wyman, an expert in computational genomics at the University of California, Berkeley. There is a possibility that it will accumulate more mutations as it evolves and slowly becomes dominant.”

It is possible for viral mutations to enhance or weaken one another. Many of the mutations identified in South Africa and Brazil, including Eek, are the same. The Brazilian version has a mutation, K417N, that is absent from the South African version.

A study published Thursday in Nature Medicine compared antibody responses to all three variants of concern – the ones identified in Britain, South Africa, and Brazil. In line with other studies, they found that the variant that pummeled South Africa is the most resistant to antibodies.

Despite carrying the Eek mutation, the variant circulating in Brazil was not as resistant. “If you have the second mutation, you don’t see as bad an effect,” said Michael Diamond, a viral immunologist at Washington University in St. Louis.

In Oregon, it’s too early to tell whether the variant will behave like those in South Africa and Brazil. According to Doctor, the idea that other mutations could weaken Eek’s effect is “excellent news.”

Ultimately, she said, the Oregon findings reinforce the importance of people wearing masks until a substantial portion of the population is immunized.

“People need to continue to be vigilant, not freak out,” she said. As long as these more transmissible variants are still circulating, we cannot let our guard down.”

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