A newly identified variant of the coronavirus that appears to be carrying potentially troubling mutations has been discovered in the U.S. and other countries, including the U.K., Denmark and Nigeria.
The variant, B.1.525, has so far been detected through genome sequencing in 10 countries, according to a University of Edinburgh report published Monday. Some 38 cases were found in the U.K., in samples that date back to December, prompting concern because it carries a number of mutations, including one that is also present in variants that emerged in South Africa and Brazil.
The mutation, known as E484K, is thought to help the virus evade neutralizing antibodies.
The researchers said it has similarities in its genome to the existing so-called U.K. variant B.1.1.7, a highly contagious variant that was first discovered in September in southeastern England. At the time, scientists in the U.K. estimated that B.1.1.7 was 40 percent to 70 percent more infectious than variants that had spread previously, based on an analysis of affected populations in Britain.
The discovery prompted risk analysis from some experts in the U.K., who said the presence of the E484K mutation could mean it has a degree of resistance to some vaccines.
“We don’t yet know how well this [new] variant will spread, but if it is successful, it can be presumed that immunity from any vaccine or previous infection will be blunted,” Simon Clarke, an associate professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, told the Guardian.
Clarke suggested that the U.K. should focus on surge testing for any variant that carries the E484K mutation.
Ravi Gupta, a professor at the University of Cambridge and one of the scientists advising the U.K. government on new and emerging virus threats, told the BBC that B.1.525 appeared to have “significant mutations” already seen in some of the other new variants.
“That is partly reassuring because we can predict what their likely effect is,” Gupta added.
The finding comes as the U.S. continues its rollout of the coronavirus vaccine. According to the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 50 million people have received either the Moderna or the Pfizer vaccine, the only two currently authorized to be distributed in the U.S.
The coronavirus mutations pose a potential risk even to vaccinated populations or even those who have recovered from COVID-19.
“While we’re waiting for other countries to get vaccinated, we are still exposed a little bit to the risk of increasing spread and new mutations,” Yahoo News medical contributor Dr. Dara Kass previously explained.
“Whereas if the entire globe was vaccinated and the spread around the world had stopped, we would be much more secure that new strains would not pop up with the same level of frequency as if an entire corner of the globe is basically unvaccinated,” Kass added.
But variants from abroad are not the only worry. A recent Yahoo News report looked at the threat from variants already spreading in the U.S.
Researchers in a study posted Sunday reported spotting seven new variants in states across the country. All of the variants originated in the U.S., according to the research, and all have independently acquired a particular mutation that could make them more contagious.
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