All the COVID Variants of Concern
March 3, 2021 – A team of researchers in Houston sequenced the coronavirus genomes of 20,400 COVID-19 patients treated in a single healthcare system there, and they found cases of all of the major variants that experts say public health, could increase the transmission of the virus or the severity of the infection.
The discovery came as Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced he would lift the state mask mandate and “open Texas 100%.”
Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States, with over 7 million residents. It is one of the most ethnically diverse, with a large international port. It is also a medical center, which houses some of the best hospitals and research laboratories in the country.
“It’s a very impressive job,” said Keith Jerome, MD, head of the division of virology at the University of Washington, Seattle. “This is one of the most comprehensive looks we have had on viruses in any given area in the United States.”
The genomes sequenced in the study account for about 4% of all infections in the Houston area over the past year, enough to give a “deep and realistic” picture of the situation there, said Jerome, who was not involved in the research.
“We can identify variants even when they are at a very low frequency in our population. So although we are the first city in the country to report all of these variations, it is likely that there are other cities in the country that have all of these variations and just aren’t aware of it, ”said study author Wesley Long, MD, medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist Hospital.
The genomes analyzed date back to March 2020. The Houston Methodist Health System is part of a global network of genome sequencing labs called the Artic ARTIC Network, always on the lookout for new viral variants.
The pre-print study, published Tuesday, reports 23 cases of variant B.1.1.7, which was first identified in the UK; two cases of variant B.1.351, which was first reported in South Africa; and four from variant P.1, which appeared in Brazil.
The B.1.1.7 variant is more contagious than earlier versions of the virus and can cause more serious illness. The South African and Brazilian variants have changed in a way that allows them to escape immunity from vaccines or past infections. All three have been recognized by public health authorities around the world as “variants of concern”.
In addition, the researchers found 162 patients infected with the B.1.429 or B.1.427 variants from California. These have been referred to as “variants of interest” because they may have changed in a way that helps them spread more easily or evade immune protections. Researchers have found 39 people infected with Brazil’s P.2 variant, which is also being watched closely for problems.
“I would say they really started showing up in December,” says Long. The majority of Houston variant cases have occurred in January and February.
Long says that so far the number of variants they’ve seen is so low that those variants haven’t affected the number of cases they’ve seen. Investigators have no evidence that the variants cause more severe symptoms.
But he says they are watching closely to see if the variants will worsen the fallout from the recent catastrophic snow and ice storm in the region.
“Although people couldn’t go to work and couldn’t go to school, a lot of people lived with different groups of people,” Long said. Foreigners who had heating or electricity took in residents who had no public service. “So, we’re just waiting to see if we see a lump in the infection from that,” he said.
Viruses are mutating all the time. Most of the time, these mutations have little or no effect, but sometimes they change in a way that gives them an advantage, helping them to spread more easily or become more efficient at infecting human cells. They can also change in a way that helps them escape proteins produced by the body to block them and prevent them from infecting cells.
“People need to know that variations, while worrisome, are not magic,” says Long. The same public health measures that worked should still work to help keep the virus under control: staying home, washing your hands frequently, limiting gatherings and wearing masks.
“We still have to wear masks,” he said. “We still have to move away socially.”
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