American researchers have discovered two new variants of coronavirus, one of which they say became the dominant strain in the state of Ohio’s capital, Columbus, in just three weeks.
Scientists at Ohio State University said Wednesday they found the new variants of patients in the state and warned that the mutations could make the disease easier to spread from person to person.
The researchers have yet to publish their full results, but the first results add to fears that the disease could mutate in different ways around the world without public health agencies noticing.
One of the new variants discovered in Ohio had mutated in the same way as the strain that spread quickly across the UK in recent weeks, although researchers in Ohio said they believed the mutation had occurred in the United States. The other was an entirely different mutation, which the Ohio researchers said had become dominant in Columbus over a three-week period in late December 2020 and early January.
Dan Jones, professor of pathology at Ohio State University and principal investigator of the study, said: “We think [the Columbus variant] has increased transmissibility compared to its parent variant. The presence of these strains suggests that actions such as travel restrictions will not be enough to control the spread.
Scientists believe new variants will appear in many places over the next year as the virus evolves to escape recognition in the bodies of people already partially immune to the disease.
Two new strains have spread rapidly in several countries in recent weeks – the B.1.1.7 strain first found in the UK and the 501v.2 variant discovered in South Africa, both of which made the more infectious disease.
If a more transmissible strain takes hold in the United States, it could increase the pressure on hospitals, many of which are already exhausted due to high infection rates across the country. A record 4,056 people died in the country from the virus on Tuesday, according to the Covid Tracking Project, with more than 131,000 people treated at the hospital.
The Ohio team of scientists said on Wednesday that one of the variants they discovered had the same mutation as B.1.1.7. This strain was only discovered in a patient from Ohio, however, they were unable to say how widespread it was already.
The other strain, identified as COH.20G / 501Y, has become widespread in the state capital and contains three genetic mutations never seen together in Covid-19. Scientists said the same mutation could occur independently in multiple parts of the world.
While the researchers said they believed the mutations made the virus more infectious, they were not yet sure if they also made them less susceptible to vaccines.
“The big question is whether these mutations will make current vaccines and treatment approaches less effective,” said Peter Mohler, study co-author and scientific director of the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center.
“At this stage, we have no data to suggest that these mutations will have an impact on the effectiveness of the vaccines currently in use.”