Unclear if new COVID-19 variant is present in North Carolina

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – A new variant of COVID-19 is now identified in Colorado and California. It’s unknown if the variant has reached North Carolina.

Knowledge gained in the last year about coronavirus is helping to learn more about this new variant.

“We’re at a much better place now than we were a few months ago,” said Dr. David Montefiori with the Duke Human Vaccine Institute.

Montefiori was one of the scientists who first identified a new mutation of COVID-19 back in spring. Since then, the virus mutated several times, but that’s expected.

“It’s somewhat surprising that its happening so quickly,” said Montefiori.

This new mutation is spreading quicker. Public health leaders hope current vaccines remain effective but Montefiori said that’s still an unknown.

“Scientists around the world, myself included, are looking at this now. It’s going to take some time to get results. We’re hoping that it won’t affect the vaccine,” he said.

The challenge right now is being able to identify changes early enough through virus samples. That’s done through gene sequencing – a method of analyzing the DNA of a COVID-19 sample for changes in the virus. Montefiori said the U.S., along with many countries, fell behind in analyzing samples to catch mutations.

The U.K., where the new variant was first detected, has remained proactive in sequencing to check for changes.

Montefiori thinks those efforts need to be revamped in the U.S. to provide the public with more information.

“Hopefully on a daily basis and learn more about just how widespread this new variant is,” said Montefiori.

The good news is the way current vaccines are manufactured, they can be quickly readjusted to fight new mutations.

“There are already plans in place to start creating mRNA vaccine for the new variant just to have them on the shelf, in case they’re needed,” Montefiori said.

The “M” in mRNA stands for messenger. Unlike some vaccines that carry a weakened version of a virus, mRNA does not. mRNA vaccines can be developed quicker and give your body a set of instructions to fight a virus.

In the meantime, he said to double down on safety precautions already in place: masking, hand washing, and social distancing.

“These things are known to work, we really need to double our efforts and by all means take the vaccine when it becomes available to you.”

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