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UNM researchers discover new mutation of coronavirus

Daryl Domman

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Two University of New Mexico scientists have discovered a new mutation in the virus that causes COVID-19, but they say there is no indication that the variant makes the virus any more dangerous – at least not yet.

“There is no evidence that the mutation makes the virus more virulent, more transmissible, causes more severe disease or makes current vaccines any less effective,” said Daryl Domman, an assistant professor in UNM’s Center for Global Health.

The problem is, as the virus continues to mutate, as all viruses do, it could become more menacing, he said.

Darrell Dinwiddie

Domman, along with Darrell Dinwiddie, an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics, discovered the variant, named Q677P, while conducting genomics surveillance and sequencing of virus samples collected in New Mexico to determine “the different types of strains circulating in the population here,” Dinwiddie said.

“We wanted to look at transmissions and introductions into the state and specific outbreaks to identify if they’re related or if there is more than one strain being introduced into a facility,” such as a hospital, school, retirement home or prison, Dinwiddie said.

Working with the New Mexico Department of Health, the two researchers increased the number of samples they were sequencing in December and January. They were alerted to the high recurrence rate of a strain in New Mexico that was “unique” and didn’t appear frequently in international databases where other researchers were depositing genome sequences, Dinwiddie said.

Subsequently, researchers in Louisiana added a genome sequence that appeared to be an identical mutation. As of this week, the Q677P variant has been found in at least 21 other states, Dinwiddie said, adding that 11.3% of all the genome samples collected from New Mexico in December and January reflect the new variant.

“We absolutely have to continue to monitor this, and doing this genomic surveillance is really the only way to do it effectively at a local, regional and even national scale,” Domman said. Overall, genomic surveillance “is something the United States has been dismal at,” compared with the efforts of other countries.

And without that surveillance, it would be difficult to see “how the virus is altering itself,” Domman said. “This is our early warning detection system that something might be happening locally or regionally with the virus that could have an effect on either vaccinations or transmissibility.”

Because every new infection is “a potential for the virus to acquire a mutation that is beneficial to itself,” Domman said, “by keeping case counts low, social distancing and wearing masks until we get vaccination rates really high, we limit that opportunity for the virus to explore that landscape and rendering our vaccines potentially ineffective.”

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