It is not yet known if the variant is more contagious, deadly, or if it impacts the vaccine, but more will be learned as scientists continue to study it.
The new variant was identified separately by two research groups -- one at CalTech and another at Columbia. Both published their findings ahead of a formal scientific peer review process.
So far, Columbia researchers say they have identified at least 80 cases of the new variant across the Tri-State area, indicating the variant isn't confined to a single outbreak.
Looking back through a database of COVID genetic samples, they found traces of it dating back to November. Scientists say they're seeing more cases of the variant now than they first did months ago, but it's not clear yet if this variant is more transmissible.
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Scientists are calling the new variant B.1.526. Although it shares a mutation in common with the variants that originated in South Africa and Brazil, this variant is unique and will need to be studied further to understand its impact on transmissibility, lethality, or the vaccine.
The researchers from Columbia say they are planning to step up their efforts to track this new variant by sequencing 100 samples per day.
"Increasing our genomic sequencing effort will help us better understand the impact of the new variant and keep our eyes open for new variants that may pop up in our area," said Anne-Catrin Uhlemann, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases, according to prepared remarks.
The studies have not been vetted or published in any scientific journal, but they show the need for vaccines remains critical.
The goal for the city remains increasing testing and vaccine awareness.
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