The UK and California Covid variants have reportedly merged into a newly mutated virus, raising fears the pandemic could enter a new phase.
The “recombination” was discovered in California’s Los Alamos National Laboratory in the US, New Scientist reports.
It’s not yet known how much of a threat the recombination could pose. But if confirmed the recombinant would be the first detected in the pandemic.
Bette Korber, a computational biologist at the laboratory who made the discovery, told a meeting on February 2 held by the New York Academy of Science she had seen “pretty clear” evidence, the UK Sun reported.
The recombinant carries a mutation from the Kent variant – known as B.1.1.7 – which makes the UK virus more transmissible. It also carries another mutation from the California variant – known as B.1.429 – that can produce resistance to antibodies.
Ms. Korber said: “This kind of event could allow the virus to have coupled a more infectious virus with a more resistant virus.”
According to the findings, recombination can bring together different mutations, which can lead to new, more dangerous variants, but it’s not clear how much of a threat this first recombination may be.
Research has also found that some people could be infected with two different strains.
Sergei Pond, a biology professor from Temple University, Pennsylvania who checks for recombinants by comparing thousands of genome sequences, said: “We may be getting to the point when this is happening at appreciable rates.”
He added there is no evidence yet of widespread recombination, but “coronaviruses all recombine, so it’s a question of when, not if”.
Dr. Lucy van Dorp, from the Genetics Institute at University College London, said she hadn’t heard about the recombinant yet, but “would not be overly surprised if some cases start to be detected”.
Dr Marcus Blagrove, a virologist from the University of Liverpool, UK, who was involved in a study into using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to predict where the next coronavirus may emerge, has said: “We want to know where the next coronavirus might come from.
“One way they’re generated is through recombination between two existing coronaviruses.
“So two viruses infect the same cell and they recombine into a ‘daughter’ virus that would be an entirely new strain.”
This comes weeks after scientists in California said they believed a homegrown coronavirus strain in the state could be responsible for a dramatic rise in cases.