New York Officials, Others Downplay Concern Over New Coronavirus Variant

By Peter Szekely

February 26, 2021

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Mayor Bill de Blasio's chief medical adviser on Thursday downplayed the results of two studies that may suggest a new coronavirus variant found in New York City in November will be more resistant to vaccines now being administered.

Dr. Jay Varma said it was premature to infer from laboratory results how effective the vaccines would be on the variant, echoing concerns of other scientists who questioned why preliminary studies are given to the media ahead of academics.

"We really don't know enough about human immunity to draw those direct conclusions," Varma said at a briefing along with the mayor. "That's why we do clinical trials. That's where we collect data continuously."

Clinical trials of the vaccines, Varma noted, including those done in other countries, such as Brazil and South Africa, where the yet-to-be approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine was tested, have shown that they are "incredibly effective" at preventing death and severe illness.

Highly contagious variants of the virus first discovered and now prevalent in South Africa and Brazil have been spreading widely to other countries.

In the United States, where the virus that has taken more than 500,000 lives over the past 13 months, new infections and deaths have been on the decline in recent weeks.

Hospitalizations - a key indicator for public officials worried about overwhelming local healthcare systems - were down nearly 60% from their Jan. 6 peak at 53,938 patients, according to a Reuters tally.

Even with the declining trend, deaths mounted in California, where total fatalities topped 50,000 on Wednesday, followed by New York, the early epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, with 46,871.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 45.2 million people in the United States have received at least one dose of the authorized two-shot COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer Inc and partner BioNTech SE or Moderna Inc. J&J's one-shot vaccine is widely expected to be authorized for emergency use within days.

One of the papers published this week was by researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons who screened positive test samples from their affiliated medical center in New York City looking for the South African and Brazilian variants and using a particular mutation, known as E484K, as a marker.

They found instead that the great majority of cases containing that mutation in mid-February were a novel variant called B.1.526 that has emerged in New York State in recent months. The new variant made up 12% of the total positive tests from the Columbia Irving Medical Center, according to the report published ahead of peer review on the medRxiv website (https://bit.ly/3kpcjod).

Another study by researchers at the California Institute of Technology scanned all sample virus genomes from New York State going back to November, and described the emergence of the new variant, which represented just 5% of the samples in late January, but had risen to almost 28% by late February.

Of all the B.1.526 samples gathered to date, about half contain the worrisome E484K mutation, the Caltech researchers found (https://bit.ly/3sjCqjo).

The Columbia researchers point out that several recent studies, including lab analyses and vaccine trial results, indicate the South African variant carrying the E484K mutation is more resistant to some existing vaccines than earlier versions of the coronavirus.

The CDC has identified more than 1,900 cases of coronavirus variants spread across most states in the country, mostly the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom, which has been shown to be more transmissible than earlier versions of the virus.

Varma urged readers to be "a little skeptical" of reports of the latest studies, adding that not all variants rise to the level of public health concerns. He characterized the latest discovery as a "variant of interest" that should be studied more closely.

New York City Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi called the studies "quite exploratory with respect to the real-world effects," adding that there is no indication that the new variant reduces vaccine effectiveness.

Earlier, Varma took to Twitter to urge researchers to share their work with government health departments before releasing them to the press, adding, "Pathogen porn isn't helping public health."

California cardiologist Eric Topol echoed Varma's concerns about unnecessarily spreading fear, calling the New York variant a "scariant."

Yale University Professor Nathan Grubaugh called conclusions drawn from the two studies "an absolute mess."

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