March 6, 2021

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Central U.S. is ‘the most unusually cold region on the planet’ right now

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America seems to be incubating a number of its own unique coronavirus variants, new research suggests. A study posted Sunday that hasn’t yet been peer reviewed identified seven new “lineages” of the virus, The New York Times reports. While the lineages evolved independently of one another, they seem to display the same genetic mutation.

The change is seen in a gene that influences how the virus finds its way into a host’s cell, suggesting it could make these variants more contagious — though this hasn’t been confirmed. “I think there’s a clear signature of an evolutionary benefit,” said Jeremy Kamil, a virologist at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center and a co-author of the new study.

The new variants have been spotted across the country, but it’s hard to tell just how prevalent they are or where they began because the U.S. performs genome sequencing on just a tiny fraction of coronavirus test results. And while viruses evolve all the time, the risk is that a new variant could be more contagious or more deadly. This is exactly what happened with the B.1.1.7 strain — nicknamed the “U.K. variant” — that’s now spreading rapidly in the U.S. It is estimated to be up to 45 percent more transmissible, and up to 70 percent more deadly. Experts warn this new variant could be dominant in the U.S. by March.

Still, the U.S. is making progress against the virus, at least for now. The country is administering 1.66 million vaccine doses a day, and the seven-day rolling average of new infections dropped below 100,000 Friday for the first time in three months, leading governors across the country to ease pandemic restrictions — like mask mandates and limits on gatherings. But health experts are nervous. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Georgetown University, told the Times that letting our guard down now would be “courting disaster.” Jessica Hullinger

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