PHAC monitoring reports of 2 COVID-19 variants merging into heavily mutated hybrid

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Canada’s public health agency says it’s monitoring reports of two COVID-19 variants — first thought to have originated in the U.K. and California — combining to make one heavily-mutated hybrid.

“We are aware of the reports coming out of California about the combination of two variants of the coronavirus and are closely monitoring the situation and other genetic variants of the virus that causes COVID-19,” the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) said in an emailed statement to Global News.

“We are working with international partners, including the World Health Organization, to better understand these variants and their impact.”

If confirmed, the mixing of the B.1.1.7 variant which was discovered in the U.K. and the B.1.429 variant first reported in California would be the first recorded COVID-19 recombination of its kind.

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Such a recombination could open the door to a vastly different wave of the pandemic, due to the U.K. variant’s high rate of transmission as well as the California variant’s mutation which allows it to be more resistant to antibodies.

The recombination was first discovered in a sample of the virus in California and identified at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico by Dr. Bette Korber, a researcher whose work has largely focused on developing an effective HIV vaccine.

Korber, whose findings on the hybrid were presented in a meeting organized by the New York Academy of Sciences earlier this month and first reported by New Scientist, said that she saw “pretty clear” evidence of the variants’ recombination through her database of viral genomes.

What is a recombination?

While the idea of two or potentially more variants of the novel coronavirus combining together to create a heavily mutated version of itself may seem frightening, experts say that recombination for the most part is a natural process of viral evolution.

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Colin Furness, an epidemiologist teaching at the University of Toronto, told Global News there are two ways a virus can mutate. The first is a slow mutation through random trial and error in which single changes accumulate over a period of time.

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Furness called this “genetic drift,” or what most of the world has come to know as ‘variants.’ According to him, however, the process of recombination, is “far more radical.”

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In order for a virus to recombine, Furness said two different strains of coronavirus need to appear in the same human cell and “swab large chunks” of their genetic material, creating “large-scale changes.”

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“Someone has to be infected twice with two different strains at the same time,” he said.

“That doesn’t sound hugely common, but then again, you put yourself on an airplane for eight hours and that’s one very plausible scenario.”

According to Furness, recombination is most common in areas where different strains of the virus have opportunities to interact — like inside airports or in dense, popular cities.

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Amir Attaran, a professor in both the faculties of law and school of epidemiology and public health at the University of Ottawa, said that recombination is a normal thing that happens in evolution all the time.

“What almost certainly happened is that a single person was infected with both a strain of the virus from England and the strain of the virus from California and inside that person’s body, somehow the two viruses came together and exchanged genes and created yet a third type of virus that bore hallmarks of both the English and the Californian variant,” said Attaran in an interview with Global News.

Cause for concern?

According to the experts, it’s a bit too soon to measure how much trouble such a hybrid could potentially spell for the fight against the pandemic.

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Attaran referred to an analogy of both the U.K. and California strains being the parents, and the recombination being the child. According to him, you wouldn’t be able to predict right away what effects the recombination could have — likening it to being unable to predict whether a child would be shorter or taller than its parents.

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“You have to actually see the child grow up,” said Attaran.

Most of the time, such mutated hybrids produce mutilated versions of the virus that can no longer spread according to Furness, though there still remains the occasional possibility “for recombination to result in something that’s quite viable.”

Whether the potential spread of this new hybrid could affect the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines is still unknown, Furness noted that tweaking vaccines is a regular practice, especially with endemic viruses that are regularly found in particular areas.

“We have a different flu shot every year. Well, sometimes it’s the same, but we’re prepared to reformulate the flu shot every year according to what’s circulating. That’s going to happen too with vaccines,” he said.

“We know viruses behave this way. We know there’s been a lot of population mixing. If anything, it really ought to wake us up to the dangers of air travel.”

Timothy Sly, a professor emeritus at Ryerson University’s School of Occupational and Public Health, noted this may be the first recombination, “but it is probably not the last.”

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“Other coronaviruses are able to do this. We have no idea what this means in terms of antibody response or vaccine success, but it is a concern.”

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Attaran said that despite the discovery of this hybrid, a bottom line still remains: “the more virus you have out there in the world and the more variance there are allowed to mix, the greater and greater chances you are taking of something brewing that becomes extremely dangerous.”

The only way to act against the possibility of creating a much dangerous version of the novel coronavirus should be to limit the number of infections and vaccinate as much people as possible, he said.

As of now, we are “nowhere near the theoretical lethality that a coronavirus can have,” Attaran said. “It can become much, much, much more lethal. We just have to hope it doesn’t.”

With files from Global News’ Kieron O’Dea

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