New phase of Covid-19 pandemic as two variants of the virus combine to form a mutated hybrid

Two variants of the coronavirus first identified in the United Kingdom and in California USA, have reportedly combined into a heavily mutated hybrid. 

This could signal a new phase of the covid-19 pandemic, as more hybrid variants may emerge.

According to a report by New Scientist, the hybrid was formed when “two variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus” that causes COVID-19 “combined their genomes.”

New Scientist said a virus sample in California revealed the “recombination” event, giving rise to warnings that “we may be poised to enter a new phase of the pandemic.”

What two variants combined to create the new hybrid?

A recombination of the U.K.’s highly transmissible B.1.1.7 variant and the B.1.429 variant that originated in California, resulted in the hybrid virus, New Scientist reported.

New Scientist added that a recent wave of cases in Los Angeles may have been sparked by the hybrid, because “it carries a mutation making it resistant to some antibodies.”

The recombinant was discovered at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico by Bette Korber, the report said.

On Feb. 2, Korber, told a meeting organized by the New York Academy of Sciences that “she had seen ‘pretty clear’ evidence of it in her database of US viral genomes,” New Scientist cited.

The recombinant would be this pandemic’s first.

Despite “recombination” being common in coronaviruses, if confirmed, New Scientist said, “the recombinant would be the first to be detected in this pandemic.” Two research groups independently reported in December and January, that they hadn’t seen any evidence of recombination, although “it has long been expected,” New Scientist noted.

How does the “recombination” mutation differ?

New Scientist explains that with regular mutation, “changes accumulate one at a time.” An example would be variants such as B.1.1.7. Though with recombination, “multiple mutations” can be brought together “in one go.” Typically these don’t grant the virus any advantage, but sometimes they do.

New Scientist cites Fran├žois Balloux at University College London whose thought is that “recombination can be of major evolutionary importance,” and New Scientist noted that many consider it “to be how SARS-CoV-2 originated.”

Although it remains unclear, the level of threat “this first recombination event might pose,” the possibility exists for recombination to “lead to the emergence of new and even more dangerous variants,” the report said.

New Scientist noted that among thousands of sequences, Korber has seen only a single recombinant genome. Also, the report noted that it’s unclear “whether the virus is being transmitted from person to person or is just a one-off.”

How does recombination occur?

New Scientist provides this explanation: “Recombination commonly occurs in coronaviruses because the enzyme that replicates their genome is prone to slipping off the RNA strand it is copying and then rejoining where it left off. If a host cell contains two different coronavirus genomes, the enzyme can repeatedly jump from one to the other, combining different elements of each genome to create a hybrid virus.”

The report noted that since “people can be infected with two different variants” simultaneously, “the recent emergence of multiple variants of the new coronavirus may have created the raw material for recombination.”

New Scientist cited Sergei Pond at Temple University in Pennsylvania, who said: “We may be getting to the point when this is happening at appreciable rates.”

The report said Pond who compares “thousands of genome sequences uploaded to databases,” in order to keep “an eye out for recombinants,” says “there is still no evidence of widespread recombination, but that ‘coronaviruses all recombine, so it’s a question of when, not if.’”

What are the implications of the finding?

New Scientist noted that because “little is known about the recombinant’s biology,” the implications are currently unclear. However, it points out that the recombinant carries a mutation from B.1.1.7, “which makes the UK virus more transmissible,” and another from B.1.429, “which can confer resistance to antibodies.”

New Scientist cited Korber, who said at the New York meeting: “This kind of event could allow the virus to have coupled a more infectious virus with a more resistant virus.”

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