The mutant coronaviruses first identified in the United Kingdom, Brazil, and South Africa might be getting the most attention these days, but the United States also appears to be incubating a number of its own unique coronavirus variants, new research has suggested.
The study, which was posted online over the weekend but has yet to be peer-reviewed, was able to pinpoint seven new “lineages” of the virus that evolved independently of one another, though they do seem to display the same genetic mutations.
It’s unclear currently whether the observed mutations make the variants more contagious or deadly. But because the mutations appear in a gene that influences how the virus enters human cells, the researchers are on high alert.
“When we see the same mutation appearing over and over, what that tells us is that there might be a reason why the virus keeps kind of selecting for this particular mutation,” Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland and one of the lead co-authors on the study, told the New York Times.
The team also noted that it is difficult to tell just how prevalent the new variants are or where they originated, mostly because the United States performs genome sequencing on just a tiny fraction of all coronavirus test results.
Viruses like COVID-19 are known to constantly evolve, and what worries scientists is that variants that are circulating in the states could potentially be easier to contract and be more lethal.
This is exactly what happened with the B.1.1.7 strain first identified in the United Kingdom. Previous reports have contended that the mutant virus is about 45 percent more transmissible and up to 70 percent more deadly.
Experts have warned that this new variant could become the dominant strain in the United States by next month. According to a recent study conducted by a group of scientists led by the Scripps Research Institute, confirmed cases of the UK coronavirus strain are now doubling about every ten days in the United States.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noted over the weekend that it is even more imperative now that all Americans continue to follow public health guidelines.
“If we relax these mitigation strategies with increasing transmissible variants out there, we could be in a much more difficult spot. Now is the time to not let up our guard. Now is the time to double down,” she said in an interview on CBS’ Face the Nation.
“We need to get our communities back to some normal functioning before we can start thinking about letting up our mitigation strategies.”
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.