Scientists discover SEVEN worrying homegrown coronavirus variants with nearly identical mutations in the US
- Scientists have discovered seven coronavirus variants with nearly identical mutations to their spike proteins in the US
- Two have gained ground in Louisiana and Mississippi, but the variants, known by their 677 mutations have been spotted in numerous states
- Scientists aren’t yet sure whether these variants are more infectious
- But the emergence of the same spike protein mutation in multiple places suggests it could give the virus an advantage over older variants
Scientists have discovered another seven homegrown coronavirus variants that emerged across the US, and are concerned over identical mutations seen in the ‘spike’ protein that could make them more infectious.
It’s not yet clear whether these variants are in fact more contagious, or how common they are across the US as a whole, according to a pre-print posted to MedRxiv ahead of peer review on Sunday.
But because the variants all share a set of mutations, the odds are that these changes to their genetics give the virus some evolutionary advantage that could make it harder to stop.
It comes as variants first identified in the UK and South Africa spread across the US and spark fears that vaccines could be rendered less effective.
Variants with a mutation known as Q677 have emerged in numerous states in the South and Southwest, with the highest concentrations in New Mexico and Louisiana
The mutation (call-out, in purple) alters the structure of the spike protein (pictured). It’s not yet clear whether the variants are more infectious, but a change to the spike protein suggests they could be
The mutation seen in the seven variants is known by its location, Q677, which describes a part of the virus’s genome that encodes the structure of the ‘spike’ protein on its surface.
Spike proteins are the first line of attack for the coronavirus, allowing it to attach to and infect human cells.
The Q677 mutation was first spotted through genome sequencing of viral samples on October 23 in the US.
For months, it remained out of sight and did not recur significantly in other samples.
But something strange happened in two states, around the same time and nearly 1,000 miles away.
Suddenly, between December 1, 2020 and January 19, 2021, there was a sharp rise in the number of virus samples with the mutation.
By mid-January, Q677 accounted for nearly 28 percent of virus samples sequenced in Louisiana and more than 11 percent of those sequenced in New Mexico.
As of February 3, the mutation had been spotted in 2,327 out of the 102,462 US samples submitted to the GISAID database.
In other words, in a matter of a few months, a one-off variant rose to account for about two percent of the cases that scientists have scanned in search for variants.
Although most of these were found in New Mexico and Louisiana, the mutation has emerged independently in at least six locations.
And they have now been detected in a number of states, mostly in the South and Southwest.
States where coronavirus variants with the 677 mutation have been identified include Oklahoma, Kansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Wyoming, and West Virginia.
The phenomenon of the same mutation happening in multiple places isn’t new, but it is concerning.
So-called ‘convergent’ evolution happens in all manner of plant and animal species as well as in bacteria and viruses.
Usually, these mutations take hold and found a genetic lineage because they offer some advantage that consistently improves survival odds for the virus (or animal) in any of the distinct place the mutations appear.
So far, it’s unclear how the 677 mutation alters the virus’s behavior.
But because these genes code the spike protein, scientists are concerned that the mutation could make the variant more infectious.