Scientists at the OSU Wexner Medical Center and the College of Medicine say they have found two new variants of SARS-Cov-2, the COVID-19 virus, including one that has quickly become the dominant strain in Columbus.
Doctor Dan Jones, vice chair of the division of molecular pathology, says some mutations affect how fast the virus spreads. Early in the pandemic, there was a shift to the so-called G strain, which made the virus far more contagious. This is why, despite retroactive identification of the virus going back to December in the United States, the rate of spread picked up tremendously in the initial surge. Jones says the virus seemed to remain stable for months.
"We are now in a period where the virus is changing quite substantially.... The second finding we report today with the strain with three additional mutations appears to be taking over in the local population. So once again, it suggests that maybe there's mutations that affect the transmission of the virus. Not necessarily the disease or vaccine response, but at least the transmission, the ability of the virus to spread in the population."
Based on sequencing, the Columbus strain seems to have emerged in the past six weeks. The mutations affect the spikes on the coronavirus that attach to human cells, and make it easier to spread. Peter Mohler, co-author of the study and chief scientific officer at OSU Wexner says further study is important to see where the virus is going, but it doesn't shake confidence in the current vaccine.
"We want to have line of sight into where this virus is going. This is important for being able to create new diagnostics and new therapies. And it's also important to understand if the vaccine is going to continue to be effective. To date we have no data that the vaccine will not be effective on these viral strains, and I want to continue to say that over and over. The way that the vaccines are designed is to create epitopes that cover the entire protein of 13-hundred amino acids, and here we're talking about two or three different amino acids."
OSU has been sequencing the virus in about 10 tests per week; with the discovery of the new mutations that will ramp up significantly.
The team also discovered a variant of the COVID-19 virus similar to the strain currently affecting the UK, but that seems to have mutated spontaneous from a US strain.
The findings are under review for publication.