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ASU Discovers New Arizona Coronavirus Variant

By Nicholas Gerbis
Published: Thursday, April 1, 2021 - 9:35am
Updated: Thursday, April 1, 2021 - 11:48am

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Scientists at Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute have discovered a new Arizona variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. It includes a mutation that may reduce the effectiveness of vaccines and antibody treatments.

So far, scientists have confirmed 17 cases of variant B.1.243.1 — 15 in Arizona and one each in New Mexico and Texas.

California variants still dominate in the state, although the U.K. variant B.1.1.7 continues to gain ground.

Hear Nicholas Gerbis Talk About The New Variant With Host Steve Goldstein On The Show

An offshoot of a variant common in the U.S., the new variant sports 11 added mutations, including E484K, a spike protein mutation found in the South African variant, where it appears to reduce the effectiveness of vaccines and antibody treatments.

Mutations are a natural part of how viruses evolve. Some make viruses deadlier or easier to transmit, but many simply fizzle out. This one appears to be developing.

"This variant seems to be acquiring additional changes. To us, that indicates that this is circulating in some communities or in some populations," said ASU virologist Efrem Lim. 

Lim added it's too soon to know how the new variant will behave, especially with so many other mutations in the mix.

"The mutation E484K has been found to affect and reduce neutralizing antibody responses. What we don't know is how this E484K behaves in the context of all these other 10 mutations of that variant."

Even if the vaccines turn out to be slightly less effective against the new variant, they will still cushion the blow. In the worst case, scientists can tweak the vaccines that already exist to make them more effective. 

"Right now we actually have a good many good vaccine platforms that work well in all of them and can be updated pretty quickly. So I don't think this is a problem," said Lim.

Joshua LaBaer
Arizona State University
Joshua LaBaer

What's more, as Biodesign director Joshua LaBaer pointed out, another variant with the E484K spike protein mutation was already established in South Africa when Johnson & Johnson tested their vaccine there, with good results.

"While it probably does reduce vaccine efficacy, maybe somewhat, not so much that they're not, they're not efficacious — at least, so far," he said.

Further answers await clinical studies. But experts agree that, the more the coronavirus circulates, the more it will mutate, so taking vaccines and precautions remains essential.

"It's the leading cause of death in Arizona, this virus is. So, we need to be doing something to prevent the spread," said LaBaer.

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