Two major strains of the Covid-19 virus have combined their genomes, giving rise to a heavily mutated hybrid – raising fears of a deadly new phase of the pandemic.
The new variant was discovered by Bette Korber, a researcher at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. It combines elements of the ultra-contagious B.1.1.7 variant that originated in the UK and the B.1.429 variant first identified in California.
“This kind of event could allow the virus to have coupled a more infectious virus with a more resistant virus,” Korber says.
Virus evolution usually progresses with one small change at a time, but “recombinant” mergers like this produce a vast number of new features at once.
There’s no certainty that the new variant will be either more contagious or more deadly, reports New Scientist, but equally it’s possible that it might be.
The appearance of cases where patients have been infected with two variants of the virus at once make the development of these “recombinant” strains more likely.
Scientists had long been concerned about the appearance of a recombinant strain, as they are common on there coronaviruses, but as recently as December none had been identified.
David Robertson at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research said “There’s not masses of evolution occurring, this is a very slow-evolving virus.”
But the very act of fighting the virus helps the development of stronger strains: “We are now rolling out vaccination to high-risk groups and this is going to provide a very strong selection pressure,” says Emma Thomson at the University of Glasgow. “We may well see a rapid rise in mutations as a result.”
Very little is currently known about the recombinant’s properties, but researchers have identified two genetic features that are likely to give it increased resistance against vaccines.
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