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Researchers discover new variant of COVID-19 virus in patient in Columbus

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Posted at 9:57 AM, Jan 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-13 16:28:54-05

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Researchers at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and the university’s College of Medicine have discovered a new variant of SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in one patient from Ohio.

The new variant detected in the patient carries the same mutation identical to the strain in the U.K., but scientists say it likely arose from a strain already present in the United States. 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.

“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, in a news release. “We know this shift didn’t come from the U.K. or South African branches of the virus.”

Scientists at the medical center have been sequencing the genome of SARS-Cov-2 in patients with COVID-19 since March 2020. Because the new variant has only been found in one patient, researchers can’t determine the prevalence of the strain in the general population.

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 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.”

The Columbus strain, COH.20G/501Y, suggests the same mutation may be occurring independently in mutilple parts of the world in the last 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,” Jones said. His team has been conducting Ohio State’s genetic sequencing on environmental and patient SARS-CoV2 samples, and he’ll continue to monitor for changes as vaccination occurs.

Mohler stressed the importance of not overreacting to a new strain until additional data and research can be compiled.

“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.”

Jade Jarvis is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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