Infectious disease researchers say a new coronavirus variant is circulating in New York City—adding to the growing list of mutants being tracked across the U.S. While it’s unclear if this variant carries the same threats as those first spotted in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil, the discovery created a small squabble between the mayor’s office and one of the scientific teams behind the finding.
On one side sits a team at Columbia University that looked at around 1,142 samples from the university’s medical center and found around 49 cases of the new variant, named B.1.526. They shared their results with the press Wednesday afternoon ahead of a preplanned release of a preprint the following morning. The researchers flagged B.1.526 because it has the same mutation seen in variants from South Africa and Brazil that may help the virus evade immunity, called E484K.
“What we noticed quite quickly was the E484K popped up repeatedly,” said lead researcher Dr. Anne-Catrin Uhlemann, a professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases in the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University.
Separately, a group from the California Institute of Technology also spotted the variant by combing through a global database of viral genomes called GISAID. That team found the new lineage makes up one-quarter of coronavirus genomes sequenced in New York this month. Both teams spotted B.1.526 cases as early as November and watched their numbers steadily climb in recent weeks. The Columbia team wrote: “It is this novel variant that is surging, alarmingly, in our patient population over the past few weeks.”
They’ve independently submitted their preliminary papers to medical journals for peer review, but it’s unclear how worried New Yorkers should be about the new variant.
New York University genome biologist Neville Sanjana said not every new variant will entirely change the pandemic. It is normal for viruses like the coronavirus to mutate.
“This is one that we should keep our eye on, but it’s not really, I would say, a cause for concern,” Sanjana said. Keeping up with the variants, which the city and state have been doing at labs across the state, is important to ascertain how to respond. “Where I would be much more worried is if we were flying blind.”
Uhlemann at Columbia echoed this sentiment. “We don’t know what the implications will be and unfortunately only time will be able to inform some of this,” she said. “We need more basic science to really understand, should it be in a higher level of concern?”
The NY Times broke the news of the variant Wednesday night, causing frustration from public health officials who claimed the researchers hadn’t given an appropriate notice before going to the press. Dr. Jay Varma, the city’s top public health adviser, described the move as “pathogen porn.”
A spokesperson for Columbia University said researchers had told the city, state, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Dr. Anthony Fauci at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases before submitting the paper.
City Hall admitted to Gothamist that it had indeed received the study on Wednesday but that it was a heads-up rather than a consultation. The mayor’s spokesperson said the city should have gotten more advance notice. A state Health Department spokesperson simply emphasized it is “normal for a virus to mutate.” The CDC and Dr. Fauci’s office did not immediately comment.
Uhlemann said it was inappropriate for the newspaper to cover the study before the preprint was published. The Times reporter, Apoorva Mandavilli, defended her reporting in tweets with researchers critical of the timeline, referencing similar coverage of a variant in California.
During a press briefing with Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday, Varma called the new variant one that is “of interest,” but not a cause for alarm.
“Not all variants are a public health concern,” Varma said. “Some variants are just that, they’re variants. They’re just a little bit different.”
For what New Yorkers should do differently about the announcement, there’s a simple answer: not much. Uhlemann and other experts urge taking the same precautions against this variant as all the others and the original strain of the coronavirus: wear a mask, social distance, and wash your hands.
“It’s difficult of course—everyone is tired of the pandemic,” Uhlemann said. “Hopefully this is it and there’s not going to be another surge. But we need to do surveillance and keep monitoring to make sure that if there are signs that there really is more concern that we are ready to respond.”
Additional reporting from Afia Eama.