‘Mexican variant’ of COVID-19 emerges, has already spread to Europe

BOLOGNA, Italy — “Variant” is quickly becoming one of the more hated words in the dictionary, and researchers in Italy say they have detected yet another COVID-19 variant. A team from the University of Bologna have identified a new variant that’s been spreading across both North America and Europe in recent weeks. With many of the new cases centering in Mexico, scientists are referring to this virus mutation, T478K, as the “Mexican variant.”

Just like previous COVID variants, this new version features mutations within the coronavirus’ spike protein, which is what allows SARS-CoV-2 to penetrate and infect human cells. Researchers analyzed nearly 1.2 million SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences to make this discovery.

“This variant has been increasingly spreading among people in North America, particularly in Mexico. To date, this variant covers more than 50% of the existing viruses in this area. The rate and speed of the spread recall those of the ‘British variant’,” explains study coordinator Federico Giorgi, a professor at the Department of Pharmacy and Biotechnology, in a university release. “The mutation of the Spike protein is structurally located in the region of interaction with human receptor ACE2. Coronaviruses attach to this receptor to infect cells, thus spreading the infection with more efficacy”.

Will the Mexican variant bypass COVID immunities?

Among the one million plus samples of the SARS-CoV-2 genome examined by researchers, the team detected T478K in 11,435. Scientists performed a similar analysis about a month earlier, which only showed about half that number of T478K cases. Needless to say, the research team was surprised and concerned by such a big uptick in a short amount of time.

According to the available data, T478K appears to spread evenly across genders and age ranges. In Mexico, it accounted for 52.8 percent of all sequenced coronaviruses and 2.7 percent of all sequenced U.S. samples. In Europe, researchers say T478K has “spread feebly” in Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden. A very small number of cases (4) have also been observed in Italy.

“Thanks to the great amount of data available in international databases, we can hold an almost real-time control over the situation by monitoring the spread of coronavirus variants across different geographical areas”, Giorgi concludes. “Keeping up this effort in the next months will be crucial to act promptly and with efficient means.”

Further analyses even suggest the Mexican variant may hold “a possible genetic route the virus can follow to escape immune recognition.”

“Everything considered, we believe that the continued genetical and clinical monitoring of S:T478K and other Spike mutations are of paramount importance to better understand COVID-19 and be able to better counteract its future developments,” study authors write in their report.

The study appears in the Journal of Medical Virology.