A new variant of COVID-19 has been detected that appears to be more contagious, causes more severe illness in young people and is resistant to antibodies, CNBC reports.
Scientists at Texas A&M University’s Global Health Research Complex reported the new variant, named BV-1, because of its origin in the Brazos Valley. It was discovered during a routine saliva sample screening of a student who showed mild cold-like symptoms.
The student tested positive for COVID on March 5, and again on March 25, leading scientists to believe the new variant may cause a longer infection in younger people, CNBC reported. Symptoms were gone by April 2, and a test on April 9 was negative for COVID.
Scientists at Texas A&M told CNBC that experiments from other labs has shown that antibodies were ineffective on other variants with the same genetic markers at BV-1.
"We do not at present know the full significance of this variant, but it has a combination of mutations similar to other internationally notifiable variants of concern," Texas A&M Chief Virologist Ben Neuman said. "This variant combines genetic markers separately associated with rapid spread, severe disease and high resistance to neutralizing antibodies."
Neuman called this strain particularly concerning among the many COVID mutations his lab has identified. A paper on the variant has been submitted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"We have not detected any more instances of this variant," Neuman added. "We have not grown or tested this virus in any way. This announcement is based purely on the genetic sequence analysis done in the lab."
Unlike many labs which sequence only severe COVID cases, the Texas A&M lab is testing and sequencing students without symptoms in an effort to catch potential dangerous variants early.
"Sequencing helps to provide an early warning system for new variants," Neuman said.
The scientists at the Texas A&M lab say they think the variant "highlights an important need for rigorous surveillance and genomic testing. This is most critical of young people who have no or mild symptoms.
The BV-1 variant is related to the B.1.1.7 variant from the U.K., which vaccines have been effective against, according to the scientists at the lab. That strain is the majority variant currently infecting people in the United States.
The White House announced last week a $1.7 billion national network to identify and track worrisome coronavirus mutations whose spread could trigger another pandemic wave.
White House officials unveiled a strategy that features three components: a major funding boost for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments to ramp up gene-mapping of coronavirus samples; the creation of six "centers of excellence" partnerships with universities to conduct research and develop technologies for gene-based surveillance of pathogens; and building a data system to better share and analyze information on emerging disease threats, so the knowledge can be turned into action.
The new effort, which relies on money approved by Congress as part of President Joe Biden's coronavirus relief package, aims to break what experts say is a feast-or-famine cycle in U.S. preparedness for biological threats, of which the coronavirus is only one example. Others have included Ebola and Zika, and respiratory viruses like SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2012, which did not become major problems in the United States. Typically, the government scrambles to counter a potential threat, but funding dries up when it recedes. The new genomic surveillance initiative aims to create a permanent infrastructure.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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