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COVID-19 variant with “worrying mutation” appears in Oregon 

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Posted: Monday, March 8, 2021. 5:32 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes, Belize City: A single sample has yielded a homegrown version of a fast-spreading variant of COVID-19 that first surfaced in Britain which has a mutation originally reported in South Africa, the New York Times reports, that may make the variant less susceptible to vaccines. 

Genetic analysis suggested that the variant had been acquired in the community and did not originate in the patient. 

The British B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19 is responsible for 2,500 cases in 46 states, both more contagious and deadlier than the original, and is soon expected to account for most infections in the U.S. The Oregon case carries the E484Kor “Eek” mutation seen in variants of the virus circulating in South Africa, Brazil, and New York City. 

Lab studies and clinical trials in South Africa indicate that the Eek mutation renders the current vaccines less effective by blunting the body’s immune response. The vaccines still work, but the findings are worrying enough that Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have begun testing new versions of their vaccines designed to defeat the variant found in South Africa. 

The B.1.1.7 variant with Eek also has emerged in Britain, designated as a “variant of concern” by scientists. But the virus identified in Oregon seems to have evolved independently, according to those who discovered it among samples collected by the Oregon State Public Health Lab across the state, including some from an outbreak in a health care setting. Of the 13 test results they analyzed, 10 turned out to be B.1.1.7 alone, and one the combination. 

Other experts said the discovery was not surprising, because the Eek mutation has arisen in the forms of the virus all over the world. But the mutation’s occurrence in B.1.1.7 is worth watching, they said. In Britain, this version of the variant accounts for a small number of cases. But by the time the combination evolved there, B.1.1.7 had already spread through the country. 

Viral mutations may enhance or weaken one another. For example, the variants identified in South Africa and Brazil contain many of the same mutations, including Eek. But the Brazilian version has a mutation, K417N, that is not present in the version from South Africa. 

In a study published Thursday in Nature, researchers compared antibody responses to all three variants of concern — the ones identified in Britain, South Africa, and Brazil. Consistent with other studies, they found that the variant that pummeled South Africa is most resistant to antibodies produced by the immune system. The Brazilian variant is not as resistant though it carries the Eek mutation. It’s too early to say whether the variant in Oregon will behave like the ones in South Africa or Brazil. The Oregon finding reinforces the need for people to continue to take precautions, like wearing a mask, until a substantial portion of the population is immunized. 

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