NOEL KING, HOST:
A virus that spreads a lot has many chances to mutate, and COVID-19 is doing both in this country. Researchers in the U.S. now say they've found at least seven new variants here. Now, other countries - the U.K., South Africa and Brazil - they've all reported variants, too, with some big questions - like, are they more dangerous? - still outstanding. NPR's health correspondent Rob Stein has been following this one. Hi, Rob.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: What have you learned about the U.S. variants?
STEIN: So the first of these variants was spotted by researchers in Louisiana, but it turns out the same kind of mutation looks like it also emerged completely independently at least seven times in this country. You know, that set off alarms because it suggests the virus is doing something called convergent evolution. That's when an organism evolves in a way that gives it some kind of superior power. Here's what Jeremy Kamil of Louisiana State University says about what the virus is doing. He spotted the mutation.
JEREMY KAMIL: It's infected millions of humans around the world now, and it's probably just, you know, getting into a more intimate relationship with our species.
STEIN: The question is, what does that more intimate relationship mean, exactly? Does it make it spread more easily from one person to another? Does it make it more contagious?
KING: Do researchers know the answers to that?
STEIN: Yeah, well, no one knows yet.
STEIN: It looks like it's spreading quickly in the places where it's been spotted, but it's not at all clear if that's because of the mutation. You know, viruses mutate all the time. Sometimes, they're a big problem, but a lot of times, not so much. And there are other mutants that have been previously spotted in this country, like, you know, one that took over in Southern California. Scientists are still trying to figure out whether it's more contagious or, you know, it just got lucky. Now, this newly identified mutation occurred on a key protein that sticks out from the surface of the virus, called the spike protein. It's how the virus infects cells. It's also the target of drugs and vaccines, so any change could be really important. I talked about this with Andrew Pekosz at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
ANDREW PEKOSZ: We should keep an eye on it. I myself have already passed this on to the people in my laboratory, and we're looking to see if we can find viruses with this mutation because if we can, we're going to bring it into the laboratory and try to study it to see what's actually happening here.
STEIN: Now, you know, to be clear, Pekosz means he passed on the details about these new variants...
STEIN: ...To his colleagues - yeah - so they can determine, you know, whether they're more contagious or not. Now, no one thinks there's any reason to panic - you know, far from it, actually. And we already know that there are those other variants circulating in this country that we know we should be worried about.
KING: And what about the non-U.S. variants, some of which were identified before ours? How are they evolving?
STEIN: Yeah. Yeah, so, you know, more than 1,100 cases of the one first flagged in the U.K. have been confirmed in at least 40 states. And British scientists just released more data that makes them even more worried than ever that in addition to spreading faster, it may also make people sicker. You know, and the first one spotted in South Africa has now been detected in at least eight states. And the one originally seen in Brazil is in at least two states. But the reality is they're probably already way more common than that. The U.S. just isn't sequencing the genetic code of the virus enough to really know how widespread they are and to spot any new variants fast. I talked about this with Saskia Popescu at George Mason University.
SASKIA POPESCU: We're flying blind right now when it comes to mutations and how prevalent they might be in the community already, so we really need to ramp it up.
STEIN: The CDC says it's trying to ramp it up, but the country still has a ways to go.
KING: And what about the vaccines that we currently have? Will they help against the new variants?
STEIN: Yeah, so the vaccines may be somewhat less effective against some of these variants, but so far, they seem to work pretty well. But the most important thing is to keep these viruses from spreading as much as we can, you know, to prevent any more dangerous ones from occurring. You know, the virus is still spreading like crazy in this country, which makes the U.S. essentially a giant petri dish that could easily produce even more new mutants.
KING: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thanks for your reporting, Rob.
STEIN: You bet, Noel.
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