The alarms are raised in California by the discovery of a new mutation of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that was produced by the fusion of the British and Californian genomes making a “hybrid version of the virus”.
The “recombination” event was found in a sample of the virus in California, NewScientist reported, raising warnings among the scientific community about a likely new phase of the pandemic.
The hybrid virus is a recombination of the highly transmissible B.1.1.7 variant discovered in the UK and the B.1.429 variant that originated in California and may be responsible for a recent wave of cases in Los Angeles because it carries a mutation that makes it resistant to some antibodies.
Bette Korber, from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, was the discoverer of the recombinant. She stated on February 2 at a meeting organized by the New York Academy of Sciences that she had seen “fairly clear” evidence of the new mutation in its database of US viral genomes.
If their finding is confirmed, the combined mutation of the two genomes would be the first case of a recombined variant since the pandemic began.
However, it is not yet clear that this has happened. In December and January, for example, two research groups independently reported that they had not found any evidence of recombination, even though the scientific community has long expected it, as it is common in coronaviruses.
Unlike regular mutation, where changes accumulate one at a time, which is how variants like B.1.1.7 arose, recombination can link multiple mutations at once. Most of the time, these do not confer an advantage on the virus, but sometimes they do.
Recombination may be of great evolutionary importance, according to François Balloux of University College London. It is considered by many to be the way SARS-CoV-2 originated.
Recombination could lead to the emergence of new and even more dangerous variants, although it is not yet clear what degree of the threat this first recombination event could pose.