Scientists based at The Ohio State University’s medical college released a preview likely confirming they have documented a new variant of COVID-19, which is likely to have originated in the U.S.

The structure of the newfound strain is reportedly similar to the new, more contagious variations of COVID-19 that arose in the United Kingdom. 

Additionally, Ohio researchers reported discovering a separate evolving strain possibly stemming from within the U.S. that contains three distinct gene mutations not seen in the original COVID-19 spike protein. 

Medical scientists at The Ohio State Wexner Medical Center found the new variant in a patient from Ohio, with the new strain’s prevalence unknown. Evidence of the evolving strain was identified in the city of Columbus in late December 2020 into January 2021.

The evolving strain found in Columbus is currently named COH.20G/501Y.

Some of the mutations found when genetically screening the Ohio virus samples affected the spikes of the COVID-19 protein, which are used to bind to human cells and infect the body. These changes in cell structure are similar to those found in the U.K. variant, suggesting the new strain is more contagious than the original.

Like other states, Ohio is facing an increase in COVID-19 infection following the winter holidays, with state data reporting a two week average increase of 27 percent. Many counties in the state boast high levels of transmission, including Franklin County, the home of Columbus, and surrounding counties Delaware, Licking, Fairfield and Pickaway. 

The Ohio scientists’ findings are currently under review for publication by the online journal BioRxiv.

“This new Columbus strain has the same genetic backbone as earlier cases we’ve studied, but these three mutations represent a significant evolution,” Dan Jones, the vice chair of the division of molecular pathology and a leader of the study said in the press release. “We know this shift didn’t come from the U.K. or South African branches of the virus.”

Jones is referring to the new COVID-19 strains located in the U.K. and in South Africa that have prompted concerns over the variants’ higher transmissibility. 

Public health officials have broadly concluded that approved COVID-19 vaccines, namely Pfizer’s and Moderna’s candidates, are still effective at preventing infections against new strains of COVID-19. 

In response to documented COVID-19 mutations, the U.S. has been monitoring confirmed cases to see if a new U.S. variant will occur.

Still, more data is needed before scientists can confirm if a U.S.-based variant has actually emerged.

“It’s important that we don’t overreact to this new variant until we obtain additional data,” Peter Mohler, a co-author of the study and chief scientific officer at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center noted. “We need to understand the impact of mutations on transmission of the virus, the prevalence of the strain in the population and whether it has a more significant impact on human health. Further, it is critical that we continue to monitor the evolution of the virus so we can understand the impact of the mutant forms on the design of both diagnostics and therapeutics. It is critical that we make decisions based on the best science.”

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