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New coronavirus variant identified in New York, according to two studies

A laboratory technician prepares COVID-19 patient samples for

A laboratory technician prepares COVID-19 patient samples for semi-automatic testing at Northwell Health Labs in Lake Success, N.Y.  Credit: AP/John Minchillo

A new coronavirus variant has been discovered in New York, according to two studies.

Reuters reports the variant, known as B.1.526, was first identified in samples collected in New York City in November. By mid-February, the new variant represented about 12% of cases, researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons said Wednesday.

According to WABC, the variant was also identified in research published online this week by the Caltech. Neither study has been peer-reviewed yet.

In a tweet Thursday morning, the press secretary to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio criticized coverage of the report, based in part on data, he said, that was still in the editing process.

"It’s great that Columbia and other academics are looking into COVID variants. But please, please for the love of all that is holy share the data with public health officials before you publicize pre-writes that still have track changes with the NY Times. That’s all," Bill Neidhardt tweeted.

A pre-write, also known as a pre-print, is research that hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed or formally published. During the coronavirus pandemic, much of the research publicized in the news media has been a pre-print.

Dr. Jay Varma, de Blasio’s top adviser on the pandemic, said Thursday that there isn’t evidence so far that the variant identified by Columbia and Caltech scientists is more infectious, more lethal or otherwise more dangerous than other variants.

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"When you read this news, you need to be a little skeptical of everything you read. Not all variants are of public-health concern," Varma said. "Some variants are just that. They’re variants. They’re just a little bit different."

Varma also said: "People are translating findings that people find in the laboratory, like there is this mutation of this virus, into an outcome in the human. We really don’t know enough about human immunity to draw those direct conclusions."

The Columbia study found that B.1.526 shares some similarities to B.1.351, the variant first identified in South Africa, and P.1., which was first identified in Brazil. Both may be more transmissible and possibly more resistant to existing COVID-19 vaccines, partly due to a spike protein called E48K; an E48K mutation in all three variants is believed to weaken the body's immune response to the virus.

Michel Nussenzweig, an immunologist at Rockefeller University who was not involved in either study, told The New York Times that identifying the new variant is an important step in battling the pandemic.

"It's not particularly happy news," Nussenzweig said. "But just knowing about it is good because then we can perhaps do something about it."

Columbia researchers say they are continuing to study the variant and stepping up tracking efforts by sequencing 100 samples per day.

"Increasing our genomic sequencing effort will help us better understand the impact of the new variant and keep our eyes open for new variants that may pop up in our area," said Anne-Catrin Uhlemann, an associate professor of medicine in Columbia's Division of Infectious Diseases.

According to WABC, at least 80 cases of the new variant have been identified across the tri-state area, indicating it's not confined to a single outbreak.

With Matthew Chayes

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