SIU researchers discover new COVID-19 variant

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CARBONDALE, Ill. – A researcher at Southern Illinois University Carbondale has discovered a new variant of the COVID-19 virus.

Keith Gagnon, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at SIU, says his lab uncovered a variant that accounts for about half of the cases in the United States.

The variant, referred to as 20C-US, can be added to the growing list of mutations like those discovered in the United Kingdom and South Africa. It also may be more easily transmissible than other variants.

“It’s here. We found it,” Gagnon said in a press release. “It’s definitely home-grown and widespread, and we’re the first to characterize it.”

The team’s work traced the earliest appearance of the U.S. variant to Texas in May. Since then, Gagnon said the variant has acquired two new mutations.

“We predict that 20C-US may already be the most dominant variant of SARS-CoV-2 in the U.S.,” said Gagnon in an article on the discovery titled, “Emergence and Evolution of a Prevalent New SARS-CoV-2 Variant in the United States.”

Gagnon’s research looked at genomic surveillance of the virus as it works its way through a population. A press release from SIU says this type of research can lead to the early identification of new variants and help health authorities formulate appropriate responses.

Gagnon explains that the rise of the U.S. variant coincides with the second and third waves of COVID-19 infections in the country and may point to it being more easily transmitted.

“There are hundreds of variants floating around, so for this one to rise to prominence suggests it might be more transmissible,” Gagnon said in a press release.

The team first noticed the possibility of a variant while looking at their own SARS-CoV-2 genome sequencing data from Illinois.

“The data kind of jumped off the page when we looked at it, so we then started looking at national data, and later worldwide genome sequence data,” Gagnon said.

The analysis revealed the U.S. variant was most prevalent in the Upper Midwest and had not spread significantly beyond the country’s borders.

“It coincidentally overlaps pretty well with the second and especially the third pandemic wave,” Gagnon said. “I think the real interest here is the fact that right under our noses, this variant has been growing and we didn’t even know it.”

While hundreds of variants evolve, Gagnon said most disappear.

The prevalence of “20C-US” suggests it’s more easily transmissible.

Still unknown are whether it poses a greater health risk or may be resistant to current vaccines.

Gagnon doubts that’s the case.

“Coronaviruses don’t mutate as quickly as say the seasonal flu, at least not right now,” Gagnon said. “Luckily, if the vaccine can roll out quickly and be effective, it should largely stamp out most of this. Could it stick around and have a low level of infection and cause problems long term? Those are good questions…by watching what mutations it acquires and how those affect its fitness, the transmission of COVID, or deaths, we can actually predict where things are going and hopefully predict what’s the right way to respond.”

With the first vaccines still being administered in the U.S., Gagnon said it was unclear how this variant might impact its effectiveness.

The finding points to a greater need for this type of lab work, Gagnon said. He called it “genome surveillance”, a better way of understanding and addressing the pandemic, rather than so heavily relying on case counts and death rates.

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