Oregon COVID variant worries some researchers

Coronavirus

Dr. Brian O’Roak co-leads Oregon Sars CoV2 Genome Sequencing Center

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — More than 17% of Oregonians have received at least one COVID-19 dose, similar to Washington, according to the CDC. But even with three effective vaccines distributed in the U.S., some COVID-19 variants have infectious disease experts wary.

“So like all viruses, SARS-CoV-2 which is the virus that causes COVID-19, mutates over time,” said Dr. Brian O’Roak, the co-leader of Oregon SARS-CoV-2 Genome Sequencing Center at OHSU. The center has a partnership with the Oregon State Public Health lab where they sequence high-priority samples from “variants of concern.”

They came across a particular mutation, E4-84-K, in Oregon by investigating the B-1-1-7 variation that originated in the U.K. This new mutation occurred on top of that genetic background.

“This is a mutation in the spike protein that’s known as E4-84 K. And what made that particularly worrying is that this is a mutation that is not normally in the UK variant but is in the two other variants of concern that the world is currently tracking: P1 which originated in Brazil, and B1-3-5-1 B, which originated in South Africa,” O’Roak told KOIN 6 News.

This particular mutation found in Oregon is the first documented case in the U.S., he said. But there are about 50 cases in the U.K. with the same mutation.

O’Roak said they’re still not clear what impact this combining a concerning variant with a new mutation will have. But they want to identify it early and keep an eye on whether it spreads more widely.

And there is some urgency to determine how the approved vaccines handle this variant.

“What’s been seen in the other variants of concern that have this E 4 84-K mutation, is that in functional studies and population studies antibodies have less of an effect at neutralizing the virus when it has this particular mutation,” he said.

Even though millions of people have at least partial vaccination, O’Roak said it’s possible there could be another surge of coronavirus.

“Right now we’re luckily at kind of a plateau and not seeing a dramatic rise in cases,” he said. “So I think we’re kind of cautiously optimistic that we can continue to roll out the vaccines and keep transmission levels low so that we can prevent these types of variants from really taking off and spreading.”

Still, he recommends people maintain the COVID protocols that have been in place for the past year — mask wearing, social distancing, hand washing.

“I think if we can continue to push the viral numbers to back what they were at this time last year, we have a much better chance of stopping these new variants of concern as they come into the community.”

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