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Researchers explain newest mutation of COVID-19 virus, how to prevent future mutations

Posted at 11:51 AM, Oct 13, 2021

The EVT Viral Genomics and Sequencing Lab at LSU Health Shreveport says it is the first in the state to sequence and report that a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has been detected in Louisiana.

The new variant, B.1.630, was sequenced last week from two samples collected in Baton Rouge.

We spoke to Dr. Krista Queen from Shreveport, who does the sequencing to identify these mutations. The mutation this time around is found on the spike protein, which is what your body uses to detect it’s in danger and fight.

“And that helps it evade the host immune response,” Dr. Queen said. “Vaccines are still going to be effective against this variant, and this variant is no cause for concern at this point. We've only detected it in a few samples, but these are the things that scientists behind the scenes are always watching and looking out for.”

Although only 79 samples of this mutation have been found in the United States, Dr. Queen says they’re closely monitoring it.

“It’s important right now while Delta is still so prevalent, that we keep an eye on anything that’s not Delta,” she said. “That way we can start to see if those are going to increase in abundance or if there are any changes that happen that we might need to be aware of.”

She says these mutations are completely natural and normal behavior from the virus as it tries to infect others.

“The virus, when it’s copying its genome to make new copies, to infect other people, it will mutate or change part of its genome, part of its sequence, that’s what gives rise to these variants,” she said.

While natural, Dr. Amanda Logue from Ochsner Lafayette General says when there are surges, like the one the state just witnessed, there’s more room for mutation.

“So there’s tons of virus floating around at that time, throughout all of the community,” said Dr. Logue. “And so every time the virus replicates, there's a chance for it to mutate. So there are some thoughts that when that replication gets going so strongly, that mutations happen, and they happen naturally all the time in viruses.”

Both Dr. Logue and Dr. Queen agree – vaccination is the best way to keep these mutations from happening.

“The vaccine can stop the virus from spreading, it stops those future infections by lowering the virus’s ability to replicate within us, then we reduce those chances of mutation,” said Dr. Queen. “Absolutely.”

According to a release, the B.1.630 variant was first detected in the United States earlier in March of 2021. It does not have variant classification or a Greek alphabet name like the Delta variant because such a small proportion of samples have been sequenced.

“Thanks to our many partnerships across the state, our EVT Viral Genomics and Sequencing Lab is able to sequence a large variety of samples which increases our chances of finding new variants. Genomic sequencing and the data this science provides is important to continuing our mission of public health surveillance so we can help best protect citizens of Louisiana throughout the duration of this pandemic,” said Dr. Chris Kevil, Vice Chancellor for Research at LSU Health Shreveport.

LSU Health Shreveport says the variant does contain the E484Q mutation, which may help the virus escape the host immune system and lead to infection.

There have only been 79 of these variants sequenced in the U.S., researchers say. The predominance is very low.

“Even though the predominance of this variant is low, we will continue to keep an eye on it and watch for any changes or if it starts to increase,” said Dr. Krista Queen, Director of Viral Genomics and Surveillance for the Center of Excellence for Emerging Viral Threats at LSUHS. “Any lineage or sub-lineage of SARS-CoV-2 with this E484Q mutation is watched because of the possibility of immune evasion. Some of the variants that do not have other mutations that increase transmissibility will eventually die out, but it is important to monitor any changes in abundance.”

While viruses that contain this mutation may be able to escape the immune response and resist antibodies, researchers say vaccination remains the best tool to prevent transmission and severe illness.

Mutations in viruses are not uncommon.

According to LSU Health Shreveport, RNA viruses, like the virus that cause COVID-19, are more prone to mutation because of their method of copying their genome. Vaccination does not prevent the virus from mutating; however, the virus does not get the opportunity to mutate in the case of infections prevented by vaccination. The higher the percentage of the population that is vaccinated, the fewer chances the virus gets to mutate into new lineages that could be potentially more transmissible or more harmful lineages.

LSU Health Shreveport says that, to date, the EVT Viral Genomics and Sequencing Lab has completed genome sequencing for more than 7,000 COVID-19 test samples and is the top submitter in the state of Louisiana to the global GISAID database. LSUHS scientists are still seeing the B.1.617.2 (Delta) SARS-CoV-2 variant as the most prevalent in North Louisiana.

Learn more about the Center of Excellence for Emerging Viral Threats and LSUHS COVID-19 vaccination clinics, click here.

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