Study Finds 2 New COVID-19 Variants in Ohio

Coronavirus depiction.

Yuichiro Chino / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Researchers at the Ohio State University have identified not one but two new strains of COVID-19. 
  • The new strains possess mutations that will likely enhance their infectiousness.
  • However, the researchers say that at present, there is no evidence to suggest that either of the new variants will be resistant to available COVID-19 vaccines.

Several months after COVID-19 variants were separately discovered in the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil, researchers at the Ohio State University have found evidence of two more stateside. A preprint of the January study was published in the journal bioRxiv

While the new variants, COH.20G/501Y and COH.20G/677H, possess mutations that boost their infectiousness, they are not currently expected to be resistant to either of the currently available Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

Since the end of December, the two new variants have surfaced in multiple states in the Midwest, including Michigan and Wyoming. COH.20G/501Y now accounts for the majority of all COVID-19 cases in the Columbus, Ohio area.

Higher Transmission

Their rapid spread can be attributed to an increase in the binding ability of the viral “spikes,” surface proteins whose resemblance to the tines of a crown is the source of the term "coronavirus." 

“The variant seen in the Columbus/Midwest strain emerging now affects the spike protein [(S protein)] at a site that likely affects how it functions on the surface of the virus,” Dan Jones, MD, PhD, lead study author and vice-chair of the division of molecular pathology at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, tells Verywell, referring to COH.20G/501Y. “The second variant we report likely affects how strongly the virus attaches to the human receptor for the virus.” 

This increase can be attributed to the development of one or more mutations in the S gene, which codes for the S protein. One particular mutation, S N501Y, is present in most known SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, variants, including the U.K. variant, the South African variant, and COH.20G/501Y. 

Its prevalence is of concern to Jones and his co-authors. The S N501Y renders SARS-CoV-2 better able to force itself on host receptors and fend off attacking immune cells, enhancing its virulence. The S protein’s critical importance to the functioning of SARS-CoV-2 has made it a target of many COVID-19 vaccine development initiatives.

What This Means For You

The current COVID-19 vaccines will likely offer protection against these new variants. COVID-19 safety precautions like wearing a mask and social distancing still work to protect you as well.

How Do the Two New Strains Differ? 

Jones and his co-authors were able to determine that while COH.20G/501Y possesses mutations in the S gene alone, COH.20G/677H possesses mutations in the S gene as well as in the M and N genes. These mutations and others arise randomly in the course of replication and become widespread only if they prove beneficial to the virus in some way—say, by facilitating infection. It’s survival of the fittest in its most stripped-down form.

“In a patient’s body, viruses with slightly [different] genetic makeups likely co-exist and a few of them survive better and propagate faster than others, leading to clinical observation of one or a few dominant variants,” Zucai Suo, PhD, professor of biomedical science at the Florida State University College of Medicine, tells Verywell.

New variants are only emerging now because they have had sufficient time—nearly a full year—to evolve in human hosts. In time, they will supplant their predecessor “since they counter better against human immune response and propagate faster in human bodies,” Suo says. 

Adjusting the Vaccines

Jones and one of his co-authors, Peter Mohler, MD, vice dean of research at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, emphasize the importance of not overreacting to the discovery of the new variants. While “it is critical that we continue to monitor the evolution of the virus,” Jones told Ohio State News, there is currently no evidence to suggest that vaccine distribution will be compromised.

“More data is needed and it should be one to three months before we have enough evidence to suggest if vaccine failures occur," Jones says. "If they do, it will be important to study what part of the virus is mutating to cause it to occur." If vaccine failures tied to a particular strain or mutation do occur, “public health surveillance of the genomic changes in the viruses will be critical to limiting vaccine failures,” he adds. 

But the evolution of a variant that is not responsive to either the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines is inevitable—not so much a question of “if” as “when,” according to Suo. Pharmaceutical companies will need to anticipate this challenge and act accordingly. 

“For example, if there are enough mutations in the virus’s spike protein which will significantly weaken the binding of the virus to human cell receptor ACE2, current Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will be ineffective," he says. "If such a scenario does occur, these companies need to accordingly adjust their mRNA vaccines to counter the variation in the spike gene."

That may sound like a difficult request, but it should be relatively easy to fulfill.

“Fortunately, this is not a big issue since Pfizer and Moderna vaccines can be easily adjusted within a short time frame," Suo says. "The governmental approval of modified vaccines will likely dictate how fast the public health response will be."

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants.

  2. Tu H, Avenarius MR, Kubatko L, Hunt M, Pan X, Ru P, Garee J, Thomas K, Mohler P, Pancholi P, Jones D. Distinct patterns of emergence of SARS-CoV-2 spike variants including N501Y in clinical samples in Columbus Ohio. bioRxiv. January 12, 2021: 426407. doi:10.1101/2021.01.12.426407

  3. Huang Y, Yang C, Xu Xf, et al. Structural and functional properties of SARS-CoV-2 spike protein: potential antivirus drug development for COVID-19. Acta Pharmacol Sin. 2020: 41: 1141–1149.

  4. Leitch M. New variant of COVID-19 virus discovered in Columbus. Ohio State News.

By Caroline Tien
Caroline Tien is a journalist with degrees in English and biology. She has previously written for publications including Insider and Cancer Health.