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COVID-19 Variant Found In New York City Worries Researchers

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Scientists have spotted yet another potentially worrisome coronavirus variant. This one has been identified in New York City. NPR's Rob Stein has details.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Researchers say they're worried about this variant because it has the same mutation first spotted in South Africa that may help the virus evade our immune systems and interfere with protection from the vaccines. Here's Dr. David Ho at Columbia University, one of the researchers who spotted it.

DAVID HO: Because it contains the mutation, one should be concerned because we know that is the dominant mutation that's giving rise to the resistance of the South African variant. And so that is of concern.

STEIN: And the new variant appears to be spreading fast in New York City.

HO: In the beginning of January, about 3% of the viruses were that, and now over 12% of the viruses were from this new variant. So it's suggesting the prevalence is increasing quickly, and one has to be concerned that it's becoming more and more dominant.

STEIN: Now, it's too early to know for sure whether, in fact, it's more contagious. But this variant's already been spotted in other parts of the Northeast. A federal official told NPR it could be more of a worry than another homegrown variant that's been spreading quickly in California. Other researchers agree it bears watching, but they stress that viruses pick up mutations all the time. Some turn out to be a big problem. Others turn out to be no big deal. Here's Kristian Andersen, a scientist at the Scripps Research Institute.

KRISTIAN ANDERSEN: It's something we should keep an eye on and make sure that we continue to monitor the situation. But what is really important is that there's a lot of things we need to keep eyes on, and then we keep our eyes on it, and then it turns out to not be important. In fact, the vast majority of situations is exactly that.

STEIN: But Andersen stresses that the country needs to focus on the variants we know are a problem, like the one from South Africa and the one first spotted in the U.K. that spreads really fast and appears to make people sicker. That one's already widespread in the United States.

ANDERSEN: And there's so much to talk about - New York variants, California variants, all kinds of variants. Most of these things, well, maybe they're slightly more transmissible, but that doesn't really make a big difference in the big picture. But we do have these other variants that we need to keep, you know, absolute focus on because we know they are of concern.

STEIN: And the best way to stay ahead of the variants is to vaccinate as many people as fast as possible and do everything possible to keep the virus from spreading.

Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.