Is News of U.S. Virus Variants Too Much, Too Soon?

While the U.S. has focused on SARS-CoV-2 variants arriving from across the globe, homegrown strains reported to be cropping up in California and New York show again how the virus is adapting in order to survive. Reports of U.S.-generated mutations in states and cities hard-hit by the virus have spurred a scientific slugfest. Do they represent a significant threat? Are they worse than other variants? And should they have been reported at all -- gaining widespread media attention and bold headlines -- before being published in a scientific journal and vetted by peer review?

1. What’s been reported about the New York variant?

A study of the New York variant was posted by California Institute of Technology researchers on bioRxiv, an online site based at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York that publishes so-called pre-print versions of studies before they’re peer reviewed. They said the variant, known as B.1.526, appeared in samples obtained from various New York City neighborhoods starting in November. It includes two key mutations, they reported. One mutation, like the South Africa and Brazil variants, allows the virus to evade one class of antibodies in the immune response. Another affects how tightly the virus binds to cells. Anthony West, a senior research specialist at CalTech and a lead author, raised the possibility that some portion of vaccine-induced immune response against the coronavirus “might be less effective because of the mutations” in the New York variant.

2. How about the California variant?

That one, labeled B.1.427/B.1.429, has been verified as being widespread in California. It, too, shows genetic evidence of key mutations in the spike protein, according to researchers at the University of California-San Francisco School of Medicine. The California variant will at some point take over the state, said Stacia Wyman, a co-author of the study and senior genomic scientist at Innovative Genomics Institute. Though it’s more transmissible than the dominant strain, it is still less transmissible than the U.K. variant, she said, and the vaccines still mount a defense against it.

3. What’s the controversy?

The CalTech study and a Columbia University study on the New York variant were both reported in the New York Times before the Columbia University pre-print was released to the public. Jay Varma, a scientific adviser to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, called on academics to review potentially high-impact studies with government health departments before presenting them to the media, tweeting that “pathogen porn isn’t helping public health.” Other prominent experts, including Eric Topol at the Scripps Research institute in California, also raised concerns about media reports running before studies can be fully vetted. He referred to the coverage of the B.1.526 variant in New York as a “scariant” on Twitter. While the mutations in the variant have impact, he said, further significance remains unproven.

4. So should the reports be ignored?

It depends. These particular reports come from top-flight institutions and scientists, suggesting the variants identified are worth tracking on a deeper level. Pre-prints make new knowledge freely available to the public -- and importantly, other scientists -- before the often drawn-out process of peer review and publication in a journal takes place. In the push for medical answers, pre-print materials have increased during the pandemic and, in some cases, have been discredited, or seen merely as ways to pump up stock prices. But they can also serve as an early warning system for developing issues. Many scientists describe and flag variants so that they can be monitored, especially for how the variant might evade currently available vaccines.

5. Will more variants emerge?

Very likely, if not definitely, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. The more SARS-CoV-2 circulates, the more opportunities it has to mutate and spawn new variants; another study posted Monday to bioRxiv by researchers from the University of Washington found that a mutation in the variant known as L452R gives the virus an advantage in binding to receptors in human cells. So far, there’s no evidence that the mutated versions of the virus considered most significant are more virulent or life-threatening than the original wild-type strain associated with Covid-19, or should cause panic. (A consensus is emerging that the three main variants are more transmissible and may evade infection- and vaccine-induced immunity, however.)

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