U.K. COVID-19 variant coming to Routt County, if it isn’t here already, experts say
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The new COVID-19 variant, known as B.1.1.7, was first detected in the United States in a Colorado National Guard member Dec. 29 in Elbert County.
There are now three confirmed cases in the state, with a second National Guard member in Elbert County confirmed, and a third case confirmed Thursday in a staff member at the Veterans Community Living Center at Fitzsimons in Aurora. Another staff member in the same facility has a possible case, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).
As of Friday, the variant had been found in eight states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In recent weeks, it has become the dominant variant in the U.K. and has been attributed to a rapid increase in cases which led to mass shutdowns.
If it isn’t already, “it’s going to come here,” said Lauren Bryan, an infection preventionist at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.
So what does that mean? And how does it change things?
Initial studies from the U.K. are associating the variant with increased transmissibility, said Nicole Harty, epidemiologist and data manager for the Routt County Public Health.
“This means that, in comparison, the dominant strain we have currently, one person infected with the U.K. variant who behaves identically to someone with a different strain is likely to infect more people,” Harty said.
And that means sticking with the same mitigation measures that have been urged throughout the pandemic, she added, “particularly proper mask-wearing and avoiding personal gatherings. We know indoor, prolonged gatherings that involve eating and drinking are some of the riskiest activities in terms of disease transmission. That will remain true with this new variant.”
On a brighter note, Harty said, “There is no evidence that the U.K. variant leads to more severe disease, which would certainly lead to increased hospitalizations and deaths. However, with more people contracting the virus, hospitalizations and deaths are expected to increase.”
Finding the variant depends on how much any given community, state or country is looking for the variant.
“Other states haven’t done as much testing and identified it as quickly as Colorado did,” said Bryan. “That doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
Finding it, said Bryan, is like a kid’s matching game. Specifically, the testing machines look for the “S gene dropout.” Certain touch points are expected, Bryan described, and if only four out of five are matched, that indicates the sample might be the variant.
“Then the sample is sent off for whole genome sequencing to determine if it is a match to the variant,” Harty said. “It is after this whole genome sequencing is complete that the state lab can confirm whether or not a sample is the U.K. variant.”
Bryan said all positive PCR tests collected at UCHealth are being sent to the University of Denver, where they are looked for that “S gene dropout.” If that is detected, they are then sent to the state lab.
The rapid antigen tests cannot detect it, she said.
In terms of the testing done by public health, Harty said, “the state lab has partnerships among a variety of labs across the state, including labs where many of the samples collected in Routt County are sent. … The state lab is in regular communication with local public health agencies and would share these results accordingly.”
A variant is not the same as a mutation. Nor can variant be used interchangeably with “strain.” There is only one strain: the Sars-Cov-2 strain, which is the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease. A mutation is the process by which a strain can take on new variants.
With COVID-19, mutations are expected, Bryan said. “How many mutations a virus sees is a function of how many hosts it can find,” she said. And there have been plenty of available hosts, especially in the U.S.
The U.K. variant, in particular, has gotten a lot of attention because of the concern about increased transmissibility. However, more data is needed on that increased transmissibility, noted Routt County Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Harrington.
Vaccine effectiveness against the new variant
The good news regarding the U.K. variant is, at this time, the belief is the vaccines are just as effective against it, Harrington said. In general, however, the family of coronaviruses are not known to have very good lasting immunity, he said.
COVID-19 may require an annual vaccine, he said, and variants, like the U.K. one, could be part of adjusting the vaccine each year.
There is another variation also getting a bit of attention and close monitoring by the CDC and CDHPE — one out of South Africa.
“This variant has multiple mutations in the S protein,” according to the Mayo Clinic. “Early research suggests that this variant is associated with higher amounts of virus in the body (viral load), which might make it easier for the variant to spread among people. The variant has been detected in a few other countries.”
The South Africa variant “could impact vaccine efficacy,” Bryan said. Still, if starting at 95% efficacy, even if lowered, it would likely still have relatively good efficacy, she said. And “tweaking the recipe” on vaccines to match changing targets is something scientists are accustomed to doing, especially with viruses like influenza.
More data will be coming out of the U.K. on whether the variant is affecting vaccine efficacy, Bryan added.
Bryan and Harrington said they don’t think the new variant showing up in Routt County should necessarily cause major new anxieties — but it is a reminder to be all the more conscientious about the same preventative measures, they said. “And get vaccinated,” Bryan said. “That is our single best defense — immunity.”
Harrington said if it indeed is more infectious, it could make that 14-day quarantine period necessary, as opposed to the recently shortened CDC recommendations to 10 days, or seven with a negative test.
“We should assume the U.K. variant is already here in Routt County and act accordingly,” Harty said.
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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