ASU researchers identify new COVID-19 virus variant in Arizona

Researchers say continuing vaccinations could help prevent the variant's development

A new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 has been identified in Arizona, according to an article by ASU experts.

The study by 11 ASU researchers and published by the online archive and distribution server medRxiv, said that a "variant of interest" has been found in 17 cases, 15 of which were in Arizona.

The latest variant is now officially known as the B.1.243.1 variant and contains 11 mutations of the parent variant named B.1.243.

One mutation of the variant called E484K has been associated with reducing the body’s antibody responses, including vaccinations. The study also said E484K has been found in reinfection cases, "suggesting a role in breakthrough infections."

"What we don't know is how this E484K behaves in the context of all these other 10 mutations of that variant," Efrem Lim, assistant professor at the School of Life Sciences said at a Wednesday morning media briefing.

This virus strand is one of several "variants of concern" identified in Arizona, which are all catalogued by Translational Genomics Research Institute and the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data.

The researchers collected data on variants circulating the state from the Arizona COVID-19 Sequencing Dashboard presented by TGEN and other contributors.

Brenda Hogue, a professor at the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy, underscored the importance of monitoring the rising variants in a Tuesday evening briefing. Hogue said the variants are being followed closely, but they could have a long-term impact on vaccines.

"It is possible we might have to have a booster of some sort ... depending on what variants continue to arise and how effective the vaccines are against the variants," Hogue said.

At the Wednesday morning briefing, Joshua LaBaer, executive director of the Biodesign Institute, said he believes it is unlikely people will need booster shots annually as is seen for the flu. However, "the more people that are infected, the more opportunities for the virus to acquire mutations."

LaBaer said there's a race between the developing variants and people getting vaccinated.

"At the moment I'm a little worried that the spread of this virus is so fast that that may outpace our ability to get vaccines in arms," LaBaer said.

LaBaer also said no evidence suggests that now is the time to lift COVID-19 restrictions in Arizona. 

“There are no biomedical indicators that would suggest that now is a good time to reduce mitigation efforts," LaBaer said.

The vaccines that are currently in circulation are able to prevent the most unforgiving parts of the variants, according to Hogue. 

"The data that we have so far indicates that the current vaccines can protect people from severe infections of variants, prevents hospitalizations and in turn, death," Hogue said. 

Grant McFadden, director of the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy at ASU, compared the process of getting new and updated vaccines to the process of getting a flu shot every year at the Tuesday briefing. He said those who have been vaccinated by a previous version could likely also get an updated one.

UA professor of Immunobiology  Felicia Goodrum said Tuesday the current vaccines are still very effective against variants, like the variant first detected in South Africa. 

"The efficacy is not reduced below 75%. And you have to keep in mind that for example, the seasonal flu vaccine is never more than 40-60% effective. So these vaccines are still exceptionally effective against all the variants we’ve identified today," Goodrum said.

Lim said Wednesday that researchers can only conclusively say what they've seen in a lab setting, but they aren't yet sure about how the new variant will affect people in an unconfined environment.

"We don't know how all these studies in the lab translate to (the) real world and people," Lim said. “As these viruses and variants come up, it’s still important for us to make sure that everyone gets their full vaccination because that still saves lives."


Reach the reporters at jageenen@asu.edu and  jspange1@asu.edu and follow @joshgeenen and @jspangenthal94 on Twitter.

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