Duke researchers spot two COVID variants in campus tests

In sequencing work, they see both California and New York forms of the virus, and say mutations have been common.
By: | March 4, 2021
Workers prep samples to be tested for COVID-19 in the pooling room in Sands Building at Duke University. (Photos courtesy of Duke University)

Researchers at Duke University say both the California and New York variants of COVID-19 have shown up in tests they’ve conducted on campus and that surprisingly only one of the positive 200 samples contains the original Wuhan-labeled strain.

Seeking to identify unique strains of SARS-CoV-2 through genome sequencing at its Chesterfield Building facility in Durham, N.C., Duke says it has not seen the UK (B 1.1.7), South Africa, Brazil or Denmark variants show up in its work on campus yet, although the UK variant recently was flagged in the community by the Centers for Disease Control.

They say the two new variants from the U.S. – California (B.1.427/B.1.429) and New York (B.1.429) – were seen after the holiday break. Researchers say mutations are a consistent trend in viruses morphing and adapting.

“It’s an RNA virus, and it’s continually changing,” said Thomas Denny, chief operating officer of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute. “Not all mutations are a variant, however [noting that a variant undergoes several mutations].”

The good news Denny says is that “there’s no data to suggest that the variants we identified will have any impact on vaccine efficacy. So far, we don’t have any concerns that we’re escaping (vaccine) coverage.”

(Photo courtesy of Duke University)

The not-so-good news is that until vaccines are dispensed to large populations, the virus has a chance of continuing to mutate. Of those samples that Duke researchers have seen, all of them have changed slightly.

“To become more fit, it wants to constantly get better at its ability to get into the cell,” Denny said. “The problem we have in the country right now is that we don’t have a comprehensive surveillance system in place for variance. The most important thing we can do is to continue to wear masks and practice social distancing.”

Duke researchers, meanwhile, will continue to keep researching and looking at genome sequencing to spot any other trends.

“As we get more data, we should be able to rebuild the natural history of the virus,” said Greg Wray, a professor of biology at Duke and director of the Center for Genomic and Computational Biology. “All the cases so far can be explained by they’re dating, or they live in the same dorm, or they‘re on the same team.”