More Infectious U.K. COVID-19 Variant Detected in Arizona

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The 2019 novel coronavirus.
A more infectious strain of COVID-19 from the United Kingdom has been detected in Arizona.

The Arizona Department of Health Services (DHS) said in a press release today that health officials from the state, Maricopa and Pinal counties, and Arizona State University had reported that the variant has been detected in three test samples.

“It isn’t known how widely the variant may have spread in Arizona. ADHS is working with laboratory and public health partners, including the CDC, to monitor this situation,” spokesperson Steve Elliott wrote in the release.

Known as B.1.1.7, the variant emerged in September of last year and spreads between people more quickly and efficiently than the typical form of the virus. Its appearance forced the U.K. to begin a third lockdown this month to address overwhelmed hospitals.

There is some evidence that the U.K. variant carries an increased risk of death for those infected, and that it is more likely to infect people under the age of 20.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has logged 315 confirmed cases of the U.K. variant in 28 states, although this is likely an undercount. Every state surrounding Arizona has reported a confirmed case of the variant; it's likely that it has been in the state for some time. Detecting a specific strain requires sending samples of the virus to have the genetic makeup analyzed. Experts say Arizona is not doing enough testing or sequencing.

"You won't find it if you're not looking and we're not looking very hard," said Will Humble, executive director for the Arizona Public Health Association. It's likely that there are other variants in the state that have gone undetected so far, he said.

The spread of COVID-19 has slowed somewhat in recent weeks as Arizona moves away from the holiday season, but numbers remain high and hospital leaders say they're worried that the arrival of more infectious variants could erase slight gains in hospital capacity.

"This is not a time to let our guard down,” Valleywise Health Chief Clinical Officer Michael White said on Wednesday.

Current COVID-19 vaccines should still be effective against the U.K. strain of the virus, but it's expected to take months before vaccinations begin to make a noticeable difference in stopping the spread of COVID-19. With a more infectious version of the disease circulating, it will take a larger portion of the population to reach the level of herd immunity need to defeat the virus, said Joshua LaBaer, executive director of the Arizona State University Biodesign Institute.

“There’s going to be a battle between the vaccines and the variants,” he said.

Another highly infectious variant of the disease, this time from Brazil, was detected in Minnesota on Monday, carried by someone who had recently traveled to that country.

A number of countries, including Canada, are strengthening travel restrictions to try and protect against the variants. The CDC currently recommends against travel.

Besides the worry of variants being more infectious, they may also be resistant to the vaccine. So far, one such variant has been discovered in South Africa, although it's possible it can be countered with booster shots of the vaccine. Yesterday, the CDC reported that the first U.S. case of the South African variant had been detected in South Carolina.

LaBaer said the danger of vaccine-resistant strains developing increases the more that the virus spreads. In addition, if people are infected after receiving only one dose of the vaccine, it could lead to a bigger problem.

“That is a set-up for the virus to start to mutate around the vaccine," he said. "The virus has a biological imperative to survive.”