The new variant is just the latest in a string of coronavirus mutations during the past few months.

By Karen Pallarito
February 26, 2021
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A new, potentially concerning coronavirus variant has been identified in New York City and throughout the Northeast, researchers reported this week.

It's the latest in a string of variants that have emerged in countries around the globe.

You might remember that a UK variant of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) surfaced in December. Since then, scientists around the globe have kept tabs on several others identified in places like South Africa and Brazil. The concern is that certain variants could be more transmissible and perhaps more deadly, and that current vaccines won't sufficiently protect people.

So how troubling is this New York mutant? Here's the what we know so far.

What is the New York coronavirus variant?

The New York variant, dubbed B.1.526, bears a "unique set of spike mutations," which scientists at Columbia University say "could threaten the efficacy of current antibody therapies and vaccines." The team's preliminary findings were posted online Thursday and have yet to be peer-reviewed.

The researchers screened 1,142 COVID-positive samples collected from patients between November 1, 2020, and February 15, 2021. Over that time, they observed a steady increase in people with the coronavirus variant, and these folks came from neighborhoods across the metropolitan area. They were older, on average, than people who didn't have the variant, and they were more frequently hospitalized, according to the research.

Separately, a team from the California Institute of Technology developed software to look for specific mutations in the virus. The B.1.526 variant accounted for about a quarter of the New York-area viral sequences examined this month. CalTech's findings—posted online Tuesday—are also considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

How worrisome is New York's variant—and coronavirus variants in general?

"The appearance of mutants of COVID-19 shouldn't surprise any of us," Nancy Messonnier, MD, director of the National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases, explained during a JAMA Network livestream on Friday. That's just how viruses behave.

While the variants do raise concern, she allowed, right now there's no reason to believe that the effectiveness of the vaccines will be impacted. At the same time, Dr. Messonnier noted that careful studies are needed to assess vaccine effectiveness going forward.

Both Pfizer and Moderna announced this week that they are studying potential booster doses of their two-dose COVID vaccines as a possible hedge against evolving variants.

"We need to be full steam ahead in vaccination," Dr. Messonnier added.

Rochelle Walensky, MD, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), addressed the issue during a White House COVID-19 Response Team press briefing on Friday. "CDC has been sounding the alarm about the continued spread of variants in the United States," she said.

The UK variant known as B.1.1.7, for example, currently is thought to be 50% more transmissible than the "wild-type" (or natural) strain of the coronavirus, she noted. It accounts for approximately 10% of cases in the US, up from 1% to 4% a few weeks ago, "and prevalence is even higher in certain areas of the country," she added.

How should people react to information regarding new variants?

Emerging variants in New York as well as in California (the B.1.427) appear to spread more easily and are contributing to "a large fraction" of infections in those areas, Dr. Walensky noted. "We may be done with the virus, but the virus clearly is not done with us," she said.

New York City's Senior Health Advisor Jay Varma, MD, cautioned that more study is needed. "We need to just consider this a variant of interest," something that needs to be tracked but doesn't change the public health response, he told reporters at a press briefing on Thursday.

The key message remains unchanged, Dr. Varma said. "Follow the guidance on masks, particularly the guidance on potentially wearing two masks if you don't have a well-fitting mask. Maintain your distance, wash your hands, get tested, and when your turn comes up, get vaccinated," he said. "That is the single most important message that every New Yorker should have."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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