Belgian researchers identify new coronavirus variant | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 29.03.2021
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Belgian researchers identify new coronavirus variant

Where did the new coronavirus variant in Belgium come from? Identifying the origin of a variant isn't always easy.

Researchers at the University of Liege in Belgium have identified a new coronavirus variant, B.1.214.2.

The variant has a number of key spike mutations and a spike insertion, according to PANGO Lineages,  a website created by scientists that allows users to assign Sars-CoV-2 sequences the most likely lineages.

There are 332 B.1.214.2 sequences recorded on the website, where it is described as a European lineage. It was first identified in Switzerland, but 57% of all the sequences come from Belgium. 

It has also been identified in France, the UK, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, the USA, Senegal, the Netherlands and Bulgaria.

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Africa's pandemic strategy

Variant origin still unknown

The variant is a sublineage of a variant first identified in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in April, 2020, B.1.214.

But the Liege scientists do not know where the new variant originated from.

"So far, it is very difficult to know where it came from," Vincent Bours, a professor of genetics at University of Liège, told DW. "And this is probably not very important," he added.

Media misreport variant origins

An article in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir  got the name of the variant wrong, and misreported that the Liege University researchers had identified the similarly named B.1.214 variant first identified in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in April 2020.

This led to the French newspaper Le Figaro  accusing the researchers of claiming to identify B.1.214. Data from the GISAID Sars-CoV-2 database clearly shows that 37 sequences of this variant were recorded in DRC between April and June 2020, before one sequence appeared in Belgium in early June. 

The article made it seem like a new coronavirus variant that had come from DRC was circulating in Belgium. But PANGO Lineages showed only one B.1.214.2 sequence in Africa, in the West African country Senegal.

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COVID-19 Special: Mutations – how afraid should we be?

Travel history not unusual

The coronavirus is mutating all the time around the world, resulting in new strains. If the changes make the virus more dangerous to humans, for example, if it is more contagious or does not respond well to vaccines, it can be identified as a variant of concern, such as the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant first found in the UK, or the B.1.351 variant first found in South Africa.

Thirumalaisamy Velavan, the head of the Molecular Genetics of Infectious Diseases group at the University Hospital Tübingen in Germany, said that for a variant to become a variant of concern, scientists need to investigate whether the variant can replicate quickly, if it increases transmission or if it does not respond to vaccination.

Bours said that some patients with the B.1.214.2 variant do have a travel history but so do many patients with other coronavirus variants. 

"Yes, some patients have a travel history, as it is the case for other variants," said Bours, "but we are currently trying to finalize the study of its introductions in Belgium." 

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