Skip to main content
In Brief

New coronavirus variant in NYC has vaccine-evading mutation

A nurse administers COVID-19 swab tests at a testing site in Brentwood, New York, on Nov. 18, 2020.
A nurse administers COVID-19 swab tests at a testing site in Brentwood, New York, on Nov. 18, 2020. (Image credit: John Paraskevas/Newsday via Getty Images)

A new coronavirus variant with concerning mutations is on the rise in New York City, according to news reports.

This latest coronavirus variant, dubbed B.1.526, first emerged in New York in November 2020, and it now accounts for about 25% of coronavirus genomes that were sequenced from New York in February and posted to a global database called GISAID, according to The New York Times.

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology identified B.1.526 after looking through that database for mutations in the virus's spike protein, or the structure that allows the virus to bind to and enter human cells. The researchers have posted their findings, which have yet to be peer-reviewed, to the preprint database bioRxiv.

Two "branches" or versions of the B.1.526 lineage exist, both with worrisome mutations. One branch has a mutation called E484K, which has also been seen in other coronavirus variants, including those identified in South Africa and Brazil. This mutation may reduce the ability of certain antibodies to neutralize, or inactivate, the virus, and may help the coronavirus partially evade COVID-19 vaccines, Live Science previously reported. The other branch has a mutation called S477N, which may help the virus bind more tightly to cells, the Times reported.

Related: 20 of the worst epidemics and pandemics in history

Separately, researchers from Columbia University also identified the B.1.526 variant when they sequenced more than 1,100 virus samples from patients with COVID-19 at their hospital. They found that the percentage of patients infected with the version of B.1.526 with the E484K mutation had increased quite rapidly in recent weeks, and it now infects 12% of their patients.

"We find the rate of detection of this new variant is going up over the past few weeks. A concern is that it might be beginning to overtake other strains, just like the U.K. and South African variants" did in those countries, Dr. David Ho, director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Columbia University who led the Colubmia study, told CNN. However, Ho added that more research is needed to determine if B.1.526 is winning out over other variants.

"Given the involvement of E484K or S477N [mutations], combined with the fact that the New York region has a lot of standing immunity [to earlier coronavirus strains] from the spring wave, this is definitely one to watch," Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, told the Times.

Originally published on Live Science.  

Rachael Rettner
Rachael has been with Live Science since 2010. She has a masters degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.