BOSTON — Viruses don’t have brains, but they do have evolutionary instinct. And that appears to be kicking in with COVID-19 as researchers detected three new variants in the past week: one in a family that traveled from Manaus, Brazil to Tokyo, Japan and two of them in Columbus, Ohio.
At least four of the five variants share a common mutation known as N501Y. That’s a substitution of one amino acid, asparagine, for another, tyrosine, at the 501 position on the virus’s spike protein.
That protein on the viral surface allows it to bind to other cells, said Dr. Robin Colgrove, a virologist and infectious disease specialist at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge.
The N501Y mutation may be associated with increased contagiousness, he said.
“You can’t tell just from the presence of the mutations themselves what they do,” Dr. Colgrove said. “What you can say is that a mutation that arises, spreads, becomes more common rapidly, is likely to be doing that because it’s better at being transmitted. It is either more contagious or able to grow at higher levels than the previously observed viruses.”
And what’s especially telling, Dr. Colgrove said, is that the same mutation has been found in disparate locations.
“In the UK, in South Africa, in these people from Brazil and now just today from Columbus, Ohio, the fact that it’s been seen four independent times means it’s extremely unlikely to be a coincidence,” he said. “This thing is likely to be rising because it provides some advantage to the virus.”
If the variants were to dominate infections in the U.S., it would put the health care system at a further disadvantage.
“Our hospitals and our health care system and our health care workers are going to very quickly become even more resource-strapped and burnt out than they already are,” said Dr. Summer Johnson McGee, the dean of Health Sciences at the University of New Haven in Connecticut.
“We should expect that these variants, if they’re not already here, that they will be here very soon,” Dr. McGee said. “I think it makes the vaccination efforts underway even more urgent.”
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