The recent emergence of multiple variants in the U.S. have provided the necessary raw material for “recombination” to occur, as people can be infected with two different variants at once. The highly transmissible B.1.1.7 variant that was first discovered in the UK and the antibody resistant B.1.429 variant from California have now merged to create a heavily mutated hybrid version of the coronavirus. The recombination event was discovered in a virus sample in California, which could signal the start of a new phase of the pandemic.
The hybrid variant was discovered by Bette Korber at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, reported New Scientist. If confirmed, the recombinant would be the first to be detected in this pandemic. Although this wouldn’t be a complete surprise as recombinations are very common in coronaviruses.
Recombination is considered by many experts to be how the first SARS-CoV2 originated. Recombination could lead to the emergence of new and even more dangerous variants. For now, it isn’t yet clear how much of a threat this first recombination might pose.
That’s because unlike regular mutation, where changes occur one at a time. Recombination can bring together many mutations in one go. Most of the time, these don’t confer any advantage to the virus, but occasionally they do.
“We may be getting to the point when this is happening at appreciable rates,” says Sergei Pond at Temple University in Pennsylvania, who keeps an eye out for recombinants by comparing thousands of genome sequences uploaded to databases. He says there is still no evidence of widespread recombination, but that “coronaviruses all recombine, so it’s a question of when, not if.”
“This kind of event could allow the virus to have coupled a more infectious virus with a more resistant virus,” Korber said at a New York meeting.
Lucy van Dorp at University College London says that she hadn’t yet heard about the recombinant, but “would not be overly surprised if some cases start to be detected”.