Study finds 7 COVID-19 variants originating in U.S. with the same mutation

NOW: Study finds 7 COVID-19 variants originating in U.S. with the same mutation

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- We’ve heard about the three variants originating from countries like the U.K., South Africa and Brazil, but a new study done by a team of nine researchers reveal there are seven new COVID-19 variants homegrown here in the U.S.

The team has named them after birds like Robin 1, Robin 2, Bluebird, Yellowhammer, Mockingbird, Pelican and Quail.  Robin 1 has been found in more than two dozen states, most in the Midwest. These seven COVID-19 variants all carry the same mutation or change, known as 677. The variants have been found circulating for a few months all over the country, including in Wisconsin.

“All we can say with reasonably high confidence is that yes, these emerged from the United States,” said Dr. Jeremy Kamil, PhD, microbiologist at Louisiana State University Health Shreveport.

Dr. Jeremy Kamil, a senior author of the study, uploaded his findings to a worldwide COVID-19 database called GISAID. A lab in New Mexico then found they had a variant with the same mutation. The study is currently waiting to be peer reviewed.

“We were able to notice that around the same time in early December there was a new critter on the loose and it was a virus that has a change at a position called 677,” said Dr. Kamil.

Dr. Kamil says the change is in the virus’ spike protein.

“This is the protein the virus uses like a harpoon to inject itself into our cells,” he adds.

Doctors say mutations are normal and shouldn’t be of concern unless it makes the virus easier to spread or more dangerous.

“It’s not necessarily that true that variants equal increased transmission,” said Dr. Matt Anderson, senior medical director at UW Health. “I think it’s really about, which strains are they? Are there going to be many? What is the impact on transmissibility, severe illness and vaccine effectiveness?”

“Most of the time the changes that are seen are relatively inconsequential,” said Dr. Mary Beth Graham, an infectious disease physician at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin.         

Dr. Kamil says it’s not known whether the 677 mutation in the spike protein will make it more transmissible, but it is possible.

“It’s a signature of a possibly small advantage,” said Dr. Kamil.

Doctors say it’s important to be more strategic with COVID-19 genome sequencing to find clusters of variants, but in the meantime, continue to do the things that control spread.

“If you’re able to identify, oh this whole cluster is similar, they have these things in common, it tells you a little bit about what’s out there and circulating in the community in greater numbers than others, which again can tell you about the transmission,” said Dr. Anderson.

“That mutant virus—if it can’t get into somebody who’s wearing the mask, etcetera, then you’re not spreading it further into the communities,” adds Dr. Mary Beth Graham.

Dr. Kamil says he doesn’t want people to panic because there’s another variant.  He says they still don’t know whether mutation 677 is more dangerous or deadly, but at this point he doesn’t believe it is.

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