In this issue of JAMA, Zhang and colleagues1 report the emergence of a novel severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) variant in Southern California that accounted for 44% (37 of 85) of samples collected and studied in January 2021. The terminology of viral variation can be confusing because the media and even scientific communications often use the terms variant, strain, and lineage interchangeably. The terminology reflects the basic replication biology of RNA viruses that results in the introduction of mutations throughout the viral genome. When specific mutations, or sets of mutations, are selected through numerous rounds of viral replication, a new variant can emerge. If the sequence variation produces a virus with distinctly different phenotypic characteristics, the variant is co-termed a strain. When through genetic sequencing and phylogenetic analysis a new variant is detected as a distinct branch on a phylogenetic tree, a new lineage is born.
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Corresponding Author: John R. Mascola, MD, Vaccine Research Center, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, 40 Convent Dr, Bethesda, MD 20853 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Published Online: February 11, 2021. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.2088
Conflict of Interest Disclosures: Dr Graham reports a patent for design of spike antigens with stabilizing mutations with multiple nonexclusive licenses for use in candidate vaccines. No other disclosures were reported.
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