Brand-new, more infectious COVID-19 variant discovered in U.S.

Scientists have discovered another new strain of COVID-19 in the United States. This one evolved independently from the U.K. variant, and researchers believe the brand-new strain is also more contagious.

Researchers at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center announced their discovery Wednesday, saying, “The new variant carries a mutation identical to the U.K. strain, but it likely arose in a virus strain already present in the United States.”

The new variant was discovered in one patient from Ohio, and researchers said they don’t know yet how prevalent it is in the community.

UW Medicine’s Virology Lab detects, tracks and sequences COVID-19 strains. Dr. Alex Greninger, assistant director at the lab, said SARS-CoV-2 actually mutates about twice a month.

“So it’s not surprising there are variants, of course,” Greninger said.

But he said what’s significant about the Ohio or “Columbus variant” is it has the “N501Y mutation” — the same mutation as the U.K. variant that makes it more contagious. The change allows the virus to bind better with human receptors in our cells.

“It seems like a story of the virus adapting to humans with that exact mutation,” Greninger said. “It’s sort of like a race. You have two different variants that come across, and whoever can get in that cell first and amplify is going to win,” he said.

“Do you expect this more contagious strain will become the dominant spreader in the United States?” KIRO7′s Deedee Sun asked.

“It certainly seems that way. That’s what’s happened in the U.K.; that’s what’s happened in South Africa,” Greninger said. “It would make sense that these slowly — we’ll see how slow — take over over time,” he said.

Scientists believe the COVID-19 vaccine will still be effective.

Pfizer commissioned research that shows its vaccine does work against the U.K. variant. As of Wednesday, Jan. 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced 12 states have discovered cases of the U.K. variant. Washington state is not one of them. The WA Department of Health confirmed it is tracking the U.K. variant but has not recorded any cases.

Greninger said it’s important for people to remember the tools we have now — distancing, masking and the vaccine — are effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19, variant or not.

“If someone doesn’t see another person, that virus is dead-in-the-host. You’re not going to go on to transmit. It’s not just a story of the virus — it’s also a story of people,” Greninger said. “We need to get people vaccinated as quickly as possible,” he said.

As for whether the Columbus, Ohio, variant (COH.20G/501Y) will take off, scientists said it’s too early to tell. However, scientists in Ohio said their discovery suggests the same mutation may be happening independently in other parts of the world as well.