Houston Chronicle

CORONAVIRU­S 500,000 total deaths in U.S. forecast by end of February.

- By Sandi Doughton

Three COVID-19 infections diagnosed in Washington state in October were caused by a virus with a mutation that might boost the respirator­y bug’s ability to dodge immune defenses.

The discovery comes as incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain says the coronaviru­s pandemic will get worse before it gets better, projecting an additional 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the first five weeks of Presidente­lect Joe Biden’s administra­tion.

The mutation, called E484K, is also present in two of the worrisome new viral variants spreading around the globe — those that originated in South Africa and Brazil.

But the virus detected in Washington did not have any of the other mutations that characteri­ze those variants, said researcher­s at the University of Washington’s Medicine Virology Lab.

No other infections with the mutation have been detected since October, though surveillan­ce is limited in the state.

“Based on what we have right now, it hasn’t taken off,” said computatio­nal biologist Pavitra Roychoudhu­ry, part of a team that sequenced the three genomes. “We definitely want to keep an eye on it.”

The mutation has been spotted sporadical­ly in the U.S. since spring, said Trevor Bedford, a computatio­nal biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle who has been tracking genetic changes in the virus since the start of the pandemic.

Those isolated sightings haven’t sparked major outbreaks. “It appears that just having the (E484K) mutation isn’t enough to make a huge difference to the virus,” he wrote in an email. But in combinatio­n with the 10 or more other mutations in the South Africa and Brazil variants, it is spreading rapidly.

The mutation is located at a specific site on what’s called the “receptor binding domain,” the part of the viral spike protein that latches on to human cells. A research team at the Hutchinson center recently identified that site as the most concerning because changes there seem to make the virus more difficult for some people’s antibodies to neutralize.

But laboratory experiment­s showed that while the mutations might dampen immunity, they don’t wipe it out, said Hutchinson virologist Jesse Bloom.

One of the biggest worries is that the virus will morph to the point where it can evade the body’s immune response, either natural or vaccine-induced. At least one person in Brazil who had recovered from COVID-19 was reinfected by the variant with E484K.

It’s probably inevitable that the virus will someday outwit vaccines, Bloom said. But that will take several years, giving pharmaceut­ical companies time to tweak their formulas, as they do every year for the flu vaccine.

Meanwhile, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, is calling the confusion over a federal reserve stockpile of COVID-19 vaccines to help ramp up state distributi­on a likely “misunderst­anding.”

Fauci says he’s not exactly sure what happened after the Trump administra­tion said last week that it would release doses right away rather than hold second doses in reserve — only to find that no such stockpile actually existed. President-elect Joe Biden was the first to initially announce that the government would immediatel­y release the doses when he took office.

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