New COVID-19 variant spreading in New York City, studies say

A new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 has been detected in New York City and is spreading rapidly, according to two studies. The variant, called B.1.526, first appeared in samples taken in the city in November. Researchers have found that the variant has appeared in about one of every four samples this month.

Researchers at Columbia University and the California Institute of Technology conducted the studies.

"We examined thousands of sequences in a public database and we noticed that there was a pattern of mutations in a set of sequences from New York that was different from the known variants," Caltech's Dr. Anthony West told FOX 5 NY.

Dr. Danielle Ompad, an epidemiologist who was not involved with the two studies, said she is not surprised that a new variant has been identified in New York. 

"Moving forward, we will see a lot of reports like this of new variants emerging," Ompad said. "I don't think this is going to be unusual. It's just that we're keeping track of it better right now."

The new variant may weaken the effectiveness of vaccines, according to the studies. West called that "a possibility."

"The most likely scenario is that it might tend to cause people to have mild infections more frequently," he said.

So far, neither study has undergone scrutiny by a peer review to confirm the data have been collected and interpreted properly. That will be the next step.

"Basically, you want another set of eyes from a group of people who are not related to the work they're doing," Ompad said. "So I might see something in somebody else's paper that they might've missed."

Get breaking news alerts in the FOX 5 NY News app. Download for FREE!