THE UK and California Covid variants have merged into a new mutated virus, scientists fear.
The apparent discovery in a US virus sample has sparked concerns the pandemic could enter a new phase.
The “recombination” was discovered in California’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Scientist reports.
It’s not yet known how much of a threat the recombination could pose.
But if confirmed the recombinant would be the first detected in the pandemic.
Bette Korber, a computational biologist at the laboratory who made the discovery, told a meeting on February 2 held by the New York Academy of Science she had seen “pretty clear” evidence.
The reocmbinant carries a mutation from the Kent variant – known as B.1.1.7 – which makes the UK virus more transmissible.
It also carries another mutation from the California variant – known as B.1.429 – that can produce resistance to antibodies.
Ms Korber said: “This kind of event could allow the virus to have coupled a more infectious virus with a more resistant virus.”
Recombination can bring together different mutations.
It can lead to new, more dangerous variants, but it’s not clear how much of a threat this first recombination may be.
The emergence of new Covid variants recently has meant some people could be infected with two different strains, research has found.
Sergei Pond, a biology professor from Temple University, Pennsylvania who checks for recombinants by comparing thousands of genome sequences, said: “We may be getting to the point when this is happening at appreciable rates.”
He added there is no evidence yet of widespread recombination, but “coronaviruses all recombine, so it’s a question of when, not if”.
Dr Lucy van Dorp, from the Genetics Instiute at University College London, said she hadn’t heard about the recombinant yet, but “would not be overly surprised if some cases start to be detected”.
Dr Marcus Blagrove, a virologist from the University of Liverpool, UK, who was involved in a study into using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to predict where the next coronavirus may emerge, has said: “We want to know where the next coronavirus might come from.
“One way they’re generated is through recombination between two existing coronaviruses.
“So two viruses infect the same cell and they recombine into a ‘daughter’ virus that would be an entirely new strain.”
The Kent Covid variant has swiftly become the most dominant in parts of the UK, having emerged only a few months ago.
It’s up to 70 per cent more infectious than than the original strain, scientists fear.
Last month, it was reported scientists in California believed a homegrown coronavirus strain in the state could be responsible for a dramatic rise in cases.
Two separate research groups discovered the apparent California strain while hunting for the new variant that is believed to have come from the UK, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The supposed California strain is in the same “family tree” as the British strain and could be behind the state’s spread over the past few months, the paper said.