Image by Sergiu Vălenaș via Unsplash / Futurism

Compared to the full enormity of the coronavirus pandemic's staggering death toll, young children have escaped mostly unscathed — with fewer than 300 recorded deaths in the United States.

But one unusual case has healthcare experts not only confused but alarmed, fearing that new variants of SARS-CoV-2 emerge and infect infants and kids. Specifically, doctors at Children's National Hospital in Washington DC identified a newborn infected with the coronavirus who was shedding a viral load over 51,400 times larger than what doctors expected, The Washington Post reports.

Having a young child fall ill with COVID-19 is an oddity, so doctors decided to take a close look. When they sequenced the coronavirus that had infected the kid, they found a brand new variant of the virus, according to preprint research shared online earlier this month.

"It could be a complete coincidence," Roberta DeBiasi, chief of infectious disease at the hospital, told The Washington Post. "But the association is pretty strong. If you see a patient who has exponentially more virus and it's a completely different variant, it is probably related."

She added that it's impossible to draw any conclusions about this new variant from a single patient — for all scientists know, high viral loads are typical in newborns due to some quirk of their underdeveloped immune system. But it does raise important questions about how new variants impact kids, and the United States' limited and patchwork efforts to track new coronavirus mutations offer little insight into the issue.

For now, there's no evidence that this or any other coronavirus variant actually makes kids sicker or causes more severe symptoms, Alan Beggs, a genomics expert at Boston Children’s Hospital, told The Washington Post. But with kids last in line for the vaccine, it's important that scientists figure it out.

"The take-home message is that as a country or society, we are doing poorly in identifying worrisome changes in the evolving virus," Beggs said, "and this is just more evidence that needs to change."