MSU COIVD Testing Site

A health care worker with Montana State University waits for patients to arrive at the MSU student COVID-19 testing site on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020.

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Researchers at Montana State University discovered a variant that originated in Bozeman early in the pandemic.

The Bozeman variant, a strain that actually weakened the effectiveness of the virus, was found by postdoctoral researchers Anna Nemudraia and Artem Nemudryi.

The pair published a study on their findings last month in the journal Cell Reports Medicine.

They began the study in March 2020 and finished research in February.

Nemudraia and Nemudryi are part of the research team in the lab of Blake Wiendenheft at MSU and did other other work in the height of pandemic, including measuring the county’s viral load of coronavirus through wastewater samples.

Nemudraia and Nemudryi analyzed 55 samples from people who had tested positive for COVID-19 between April and July 2020, recording the entire genome of each coronavirus sample.

Among those 55 samples, five had the same mutation — a change in the virus’s genome — which was significant enough to signal a variant, the researchers said.

“We only saw five samples, but it doesn’t mean there were only five people in the community that had it,” Nemudryi said.

Researchers compared the results against a global database of coronavirus samples and found similar mutations had already been observed elsewhere, solidifying the idea that these samples were their own strain.

Without testing every single COVID-19 sample, there’s no way of knowing how many strains exist, said Dr. Neil Ku, an infectious disease specialist at the Billings Clinic.

Some variants have made headlines across the globe for easier transmission or more severe symptoms. However, coronavirus mutations occur about once every two weeks, Ku said.

“We focus on these small, handful of variants but there are hundreds and thousands of different variants,” Ku said. “Most just don’t have an advantage and the mutations don’t do anything.”

Variants, or strains, are genetic mutations of the parent virus — in this case the coronavirus. As the virus spreads, there’s more opportunity for the virus to mutate while infecting a host.

Those mutations can have an impact on how effective the virus is against treatments or a vaccine, or how easily the virus transmits between people.

The Bozeman variant made the virus less effective by essentially undermining its ability to overcome the human immune system.

Nemudryi and Nemudraia hypothesized that the virus’s inability to replicate quickly was one reason it died out within a relatively short time in Bozeman.

In rare cases, mutations can occur to improve the virus — making it more virulent or more deadly — but most mutations don’t make any significant change to the virus.

“The significance of that for most strains is pretty limited and that’s what they’re finding locally,” said Jim Murphy, co-administrator of the Public Health and Safety Division within the state’s Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Murphy wasn’t aware of any other strains that have been found to originate in Montana.

As Ku points out, the likelihood for a coronavirus strain to develop increases with a higher rate of infections.

“If we want to prevent more variants (from developing), getting more people vaccinated is the answer to that,” Murphy said.

Although the study ultimately showed the strain in Bozeman was relatively weak, the research is important to gain a better understanding into how the virus can mutate and spread, Nemudryi said.

As cases slow and the state focuses on vaccinations, understanding how the virus changes may be crucial for mitigating the impact of the disease it causes and may lead to differences in the public health response or patient care in the future.

“We’re enjoying lower numbers (of COVID-19) right now, but we need to be vigilant for any strain that emerges that might change what we’re doing,” Murphy said.

That may be especially important going into the fall, which is the regular season for respiratory illnesses like the flu.

If strains are shown to be more prevalent in Montana, or a strain is found that decreases the effectiveness of the vaccine, the health department wants to catch it as quickly as possible, Murphy said.

There are several coronavirus variants present in Montana that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have categorized as “variants of concern” and “variants of interest.”

Those include strains like the alpha variant, which originated in the U.K., or the gamma variant that originated in Brazil.

A variant of interest is one that health officials suspect could be more contagious, cause a more severe response to the disease or reduce effectiveness of vaccines or treatments.

Variants of concern have evidence that the particular strain increases transmissibility, could cause more severe disease and reduces effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, according to the CDC.

The state analyzes about 10%-15% of weekly COVID-19 samples from across the state for variants of interest or variants of concern.

Labs at MSU, University of Montana, and a few private labs across the state also analyze statewide samples for strains. The data is collectively shared between those labs, Murphy said.

The state also sends some samples to the CDC.

On Thursday, the director of DPHHS, Adam Meier, submitted a request to the health advisory committee, one of several committees tasked with spending the state’s allotment of federal stimulus money, to support in-state testing for coronavirus variants.

A grant offered by the CDC, totaling about $1.4 million, has been allocated to Montana and would go to improving lab infrastructure, training staff for the state lab, UM and MSU.

Doing that kind of surveillance is an early warning system to detect possible new strains, Murphy said.

Gallatin County has seen the highest number of coronavirus variant cases, with 44 in total. The next highest, Ravalli County, has seen 36 cases.

Murphy said Gallatin County’s high number of variant cases is in part because of MSU’s surveillance work.

“The MSU laboratory is doing the testing so they’re oversampling the area,” he said, compared to counties or cities without local surveillance. “It’s a bit of a skewed sample.”

Staring in February, the state also began watching for variants and studying the correlation between them and so-called “breakthrough” infections.

Breakthrough infections are positive COVID-19 cases that occurred in a vaccinated individual.

To date, Montana has seen 198 breakthrough cases with 22 hospitalizations and two deaths. Of 40 of those cases, 34 of the people were found to be infected by either a variant of concern or interest.

“More vaccine helps with variants and positions ourselves for a better late fall and a better respiratory season,” Murphy said. “We want to hopefully avoid what we experienced last year.”

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Juliana Sukut can be reached at 582-2630 or jsukut@dailychronicle.com