Is B.1.526 dangerous? New Covid-19 variant identified in New York may weaken efficacy of vaccines, say experts

According to the team, this discovery also highlights the need for a concerted national surveillance program to track and contain the spread of novel coronavirus variants


                            Is B.1.526 dangerous? New Covid-19 variant identified in New York may weaken efficacy of vaccines, say experts
There has been a steady increase in the detection rate of B.1.526 cases from late December to mid-February, with a rise of 12.3% in the past 2 weeks (Getty Images)

As the US races to vaccinate as many Americans as possible against Covid-19, a new variant has been identified in New York. Dubbed as B.1.526, the variant carries a mutation that may weaken the effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines, according to researchers. 

The team from Columbia University says that there has been a steady increase in the detection rate of B.1.526 cases from late December to mid-February, with a rise of 12.3% in the past two weeks. One of the mutations in this variant is the same concerning change found in the variant first seen in South Africa and known as B.1.351.

“It is this novel variant that is surging, alarmingly, in our patient population over the past few weeks,” write authors. The findings have, however, been published as a pre-print and are yet to be peer-reviewed.  

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Explaining further, the investigators write: “In vitro studies have shown that one mutation, E484K, plays a crucial role in the loss of neutralizing activity of some monoclonal antibodies as well as most convalescent and vaccine sera against variant B.1.35…To survey for these novel variants in our patient population in New York City, PCR assays were designed to identify viruses with two signature mutations, E484K and N501Y. Whole genome sequencing further demonstrated that most of our E484K isolates (49 out of 65) fell within a single lineage: B.1.526.”  

One of the mutations in this variant is the same concerning change found in the variant first seen in South Africa and known as B.1.351 (Getty Images)

Patients with this novel variant came from diverse neighborhoods in the metropolitan area, and they were on average older and more frequently hospitalized. “Phylogenetic analyses of sequences in the database further reveal that this B.1.526 variant is scattered in the Northeast of US, and its unique set of spike mutations may also pose an antigenic challenge for current interventions,” the findings state.

According to the team, this discovery also highlights the need for a concerted national surveillance program to track and contain the spread of novel coronavirus variants. “In conclusion, we identified B.1.526 as a local lineage of concern due to E484K in particular, which could threaten the efficacy of current antibody therapies and vaccines,” they caution.

Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time. Sometimes new variants emerge and disappear. Other times, new variants emerge and persist. Multiple variants of the virus that causes Covid-19 have been documented in the US and globally during this pandemic.

In a second report, which was also posted online and has not been peer-reviewed, investigators from the California Institute of Technology say that they developed a software tool that has also detected the B.1.526 variant in New York.

According to their analysis, it appears that the frequency of lineage B.1.526 has increased rapidly in New York. This lineage appeared in late November 2020 and isolates from this lineage account for about 25% of coronavirus genomes sequenced and deposited from New York during February 2021.

“We have developed a software tool, Variant Database (VDB), for quickly examining the changing landscape of spike mutations. Using this tool, we detected an emerging lineage of viral isolates in the New York region that shares mutations with previously reported variants. The most common sets of spike mutations in this lineage (now designated as B.1.526) are L5F, T95I, D253G, E484K or S477N, D614G, and A701V,” explains the team. 

Isolates from this lineage account for about 25% of coronavirus genomes sequenced and deposited from New York during February 2021, suggests the California Institute of Technology study
(Getty Images)

One mutation may reduce the ability of certain antibodies to neutralize, or inactivate, the virus, warns the team. “There are two main branches of this lineage, one having E484K and the other including S477N, both located within the receptor-binding domain (RBD) of spike. E484K is known to attenuate neutralization of multiple anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, and is also present in variants B.1.351 and P.1/B.1.1.248...S477N has been identified in several earlier lineages, is near the binding site of multiple antibodies and has been implicated to increase viral infectivity through enhanced interactions with ACE2,” the findings state. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s chief medical adviser, however, has downplayed results from the two studies, according to Reuters. Dr Jay Varma emphasizes it is premature to infer from laboratory results how effective the vaccines would be on the variant. “We really don’t know enough about human immunity to draw those direct conclusions. That’s why we do clinical trials. That’s where we collect data continuously,” he notes. 

Verma also tweeted, “Plea to academics: please review high impact studies w/govt health depts before marketing it to media. We’re left to decipher science from journalist’s abstract while fielding calls from electeds, public, media how this changes policy. Pathogen porn isn’t helping public health.” 



 

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