The COVID-19 UK variant, SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.7, has been found in Dallas. The first case in Texas of the mutated virus first identified in the United Kingdom was reported in Harris County earlier this month.
“This is now the third identified case in Texas, and we can assume there are more cases in our community due to the nature of this variant and how quickly it spreads,” Dr. Philip Huang, Dallas County Health and Human Services director, said in a press release.
The individual identified as having been infected by the B.1.1.7 variant is a Dallas man in his 20s with no recent history of travel outside the U.S. He is in stable condition, isolated, and DCHHS epidemiologists are conducting an investigation to identify and notify others who came in close contact with him. In a press release, DCHHS said it found the infection was caused by the variant through the results of genetic sequencing.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said the darkest times of COVID-19 are among us and will continue into February before significant immunization is seen and things start to get better. But, B.1.1.7 could change that.
“B.1.1.7 throws a question mark into that,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important with this new strain, that is 70% more contagious than the one we’ve been dealing with, that everybody wears a mask, avoids the crowds, forgoes get-togethers and washes their hands.”
As Paul Kellam, a professor of virus genomics at Imperial College London, explained to The Guardian, the variant being 70% more contagious means 10 people with B.1.1.7 could potentially transmit their infection to 19 to 23 new people, instead of just 15 with the COVID-19.
Jenkins said if people don’t do everything they can to control the spread of the virus, the new variant will cause hospitals to be overrun.
It does not appear B.1.1.7 causes more serious symptoms, and Jenkins said experts believe vaccines against the original strain work against B.1.1.7. “But, this shows us that the virus is working to mutate into more deadly and more contagious variants,” Jenkins said. “It’s a race between us to get you vaccinated and you to make good decisions, to register to get vaccinated and keep yourself as healthy as possible.”
The new variant is cropping up in states across the country. As of Jan. 15, 88 cases of B.1.1.7 have been detected in 14 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly half of the U.S. cases are in California. So far, 15,369 cases of B.1.1.7 have been reported globally.
In a report released last week, the CDC estimates the new variant emerged in the UK sometime last September. It has since become the dominant circulating COVID-19 variant in England. The modeled trajectory of B.1.1.7 indicates it will spread rapidly in the U.S. early this year, becoming the predominant variant by March.
There are other variants that have yet to be reported in the U.S.
A South African variant, B.1.351, is believed to have emerged in the country in October. There are 415 cases in 13 countries. Another, called P.1, appeared in Brazil this month. It was originally identified in four travelers from Brazil who were tested during routine screening at an airport in Japan, according to the CDC. Since then, 35 cases P.1 have been reported in the two countries. There are additional mutations in P.1 that could affect its ability to be recognized by antibodies.
It is still unknown how widely these new variants have spread, how the diseases they cause differ from the disease caused by others currently circulating and how they affect existing therapies and vaccines.
However, Dr. Erin Carlson, associate clinical professor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at the University of Texas at Arlington, told the Observer that people shouldn't be afraid of new variants. She said viruses become more transmissible because it increases its chances of survival. This is a normal part of a virus' life. She added that COVID-19 could even evolve to become less deadly, similar to influenza.
Monday's COVID-19 risk level was in the red, indicating people in Dallas County should stay home. As of Jan. 17, the county reported a total of 207,640 confirmed cases of COVID-19. "We must remain vigilant in our fight against this virus and continue all preventative and protective measures such as wearing our mask, washing our hands, and physical distancing," Huang said.
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