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A Look At The New U.S. Coronavirus Variants

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In recent months, we have learned about several new variants of the coronavirus. They were first identified in other countries before being detected here in the U.S. But the virus has also been evolving here. As we heard earlier in this program, yesterday, scientists reported seven new homegrown variants. To tell us more about these strains, we're joined now by NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee

Hey, Rhitu.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So the way I understand it, these seven variants all have, like, a similar mutation, right?

CHATTERJEE: That's right. These variants evolved independently in different parts of the country, but they do all have a similar mutation. And it's in the spike protein of the virus. Remember; the spike protein is what helps the virus infect the host cell - human cells in this case. And it works sort of like a harpoon, helping the virus attach to the surface of cells in our bodies and then inject the genetic material into the cells so that it can replicate and make more viruses.

CHANG: But do scientists know what these mutations do? I mean, do they make the virus more infectious or deadlier in any way?

CHATTERJEE: The short answer is we don't know. I spoke with the main author of the study, Jeremy Kamil at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. And I asked him, should we be more concerned about these new variants? And here's what he said.

JEREMY KAMIL: Definitely don't panic anyone. There's no reason to think it'd be more deadly. If there's a difference in transmissibility, it would probably be a small one that really wouldn't - shouldn't concern the average member of the public.

CHATTERJEE: Yeah. And as he puts it, he thinks this is just the - you know, these mutations are just part of the virus' course of evolution. And as it infects more humans, it'll just keep mutating. And not all mutations will be harmful to humans, whereas others - a few might. And another researcher I spoke with who wasn't involved in the study said that because these American variants evolved independently and yet have similar mutations, it's likely that the mutations do offer some benefit to the virus. But he says it's too early to know with these strains.

CHANG: OK, so at this point, there's no reason to think that these strains might make vaccines less effective. Yeah?

CHATTERJEE: That's correct. The researchers I spoke to aren't really worried about it, but what they are concerned about is that variants will continue to emerge around the country and that the U.S. needs to have a nationally coordinated effort to track the virus. Dr. Jeremy Luban is at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He wasn't involved in the new study, but he told me that other countries are doing a much better job at tracking the virus.

JEREMY LUBAN: The United Kingdom, for example, has had extremely extensive investigations of the virus as it spreads through the population. I think about 10% of all of the infections in England have been - actually been sequenced and assessed.

CHATTERJEE: The U.S., on the other hand, he says, is just scrambling to catch up to where it needs to be to better monitor the virus.

CHANG: And I imagine, I mean, if there is a virant (ph) that is more - a variant that is more dangerous, we want to know as soon as possible, right?

CHATTERJEE: Exactly. You know, he was talking about the U.K. And new data from that country suggests that the variant that was first identified there is not only spreading faster but may make people sicker. So it's important to keep sequencing, and that'll also help vaccine companies to tweak vaccines when necessary to keep them effective against worrisome new strains.

CHANG: That is NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee.

Thank you, Rhitu.

CHATTERJEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.