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Study: ASU researchers find new COVID-19 'variant of interest' in Arizona

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Posted at 10:05 AM, Mar 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-31 01:14:34-04

PHOENIX — Arizona State University researchers have discovered a new coronavirus "variant of interest" emerging in Arizona.

According to a scientific journal study by ASU's Biodesign Institute posted on Sunday, scientists have discovered a new "E484K" variant from another common variant in the United States.

The study suggests the E484K variant is "in the process of being established in Arizona" and has started to cross state borders into New Mexico and Texas.

Scientists with ASU’s Biodesign Institute recently discovered 15 cases of E484K around the state. That number that has now grown to 53.

Researchers say, according to the study, vaccines could potentially be less effective against this particular strain.

“There’s a couple key mutations that pretty much the collective sequencing world is looking at,” said Dr. David Engelhaler.

Dr. Engelhaler, an epidemiologist with T-Gen, is helping lead the effort to genetically sequence COVID-19 cases across the state.

Right now, his team is monitoring nearly 20 variants including the European, South African, and Californian. They're mainly watching to see if the variants are capable of spreading more quickly.

“One of the other type of mutations we’re looking for are those that cause escape from antibody, potentially meaning that the vaccine won’t be as effective as more of these mutations occur,” said Dr. Engelhaler.

In the study, researchers revealed E484K shows the possibility of resisting antibodies in both monoclonal therapies and vaccines.

“If it does seem to cause one of those problems then it kind of moves over in that category of variants of concern,” said Dr. Engelhaler.

Dr. Engelhaler says while it remains only a variant of interest at the moment, it’s a critical mutation to keep tabs on. “The vaccines do become less and less effective if more and more of these mutations pop up."

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While the study has not been peer-reviewed and is not intended to be used as a clinical process guide, the study suggests continued surveillance of this variant.

Earlier this month, the Arizona Department of Health Services said the first case of the South African COVID-19 variant had been detected in Arizona.

Last week, Governor Doug Ducey further lifted some coronavirus restrictions around our state as more people get vaccinated and case numbers continue to trend downward.

Arizona surpassed two million vaccinations last week.

As of Tuesday, the state and its partners have sequenced the genomes of more than 10,000 test samples.