A coronavirus variant discovered in Colombia is showing up among patients in South Florida, increasing infections and putting health officials on alert as calls grow louder for unvaccinated individuals to get inoculated.
Carlos Migoya, CEO of Jackson Health System, told WPLG in Miami earlier this week that the B.1.621 variant has accounted for about 10% of coronavirus patients, trailing behind delta, the now dominant variant in the United States that’s been ravaging the nation’s unvaccinated, and the gamma variant. B.1.621 has yet to receive a Greek-letter designation as more prominent variants have.
Migoya told the news station that he speculated B.1.621 is likely rising in South Florida because of international travel between Colombia and Miami, which serves as a gateway to Latin America.
A person who replied to an email sent from The Washington Post to Migoya’s office said he was unavailable to comment.
Health experts will keep B.1.621 on their radar as the fall season looms and as parts of the country still lag in their vaccination efforts, experts told The Post.
The earliest documented samples of B.1.621 were noted in January, and at least 16 cases have been recently reported in the United Kingdom, where health officials have noted that the majority of cases linked to the variant were the result of international travel.
Public Health England noted last week that there is currently no evidence to indicate that the variant causes more severe disease or evades the efficacy of vaccines. Yet, the agency has designated the variant to be under investigation as it continues to conduct lab testing to better understand the impact mutations have on the coronavirus.
The European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has also chosen to assign the variant as one of interest, as evidence could suggest significant impact, but also noting that much of the data is preliminary and marked with many questions.
In the United States, the variant has yet to be named a variant of interest of concern, accounting for just more than 2.1% of cases as of July 17, noted John Sellick, a professor at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo.
“The only time it becomes important is if it gives virus selective advantage, which we’ve seen with delta variant,” he said. “We’ll see with this one. . . . What we have to see is two weeks from now, or four weeks from now, is this going to do another trick and wind up being more?”
Sellick noted how quickly the delta variant went from accounting for just more than 10% of cases at the beginning of June to more than 80% of cases by mid July.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is monitoring more than 10 other variants in addition to B.1.621 that’s popping up in South Florida.
Only time will provide more information about B.1.621, Sellick said.
“If this thing is really more transmissible and goes from two percent [of infections] to 30 percent or to 60 percent; we don’t want to see that,” he said. “It has to be more fit than the delta variant. It would have to be more transmissible.”
It doesn’t take much time for variants to spread, especially among unvaccinated people, said Preeti N. Malani, chief health officer and a professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Michigan.
Malani pointed to drug company Biogen’s annual leadership conference in February 2020, from which the coronavirus spread across Massachusetts and the country, as an example of how quickly variants can spread.
“If you have a lot of unvaccinated people gathering and then they’re going back home, you could have very rapid transmission in few weeks,” she said.
Concerns about variants really set in when they are more contagious or elude the vaccine, she said.
Many worries about variants and further infections can be mitigated with more people choosing to get vaccinated, but that effort has become like a “whack-a-mole” initiative as new variants emerge and fears about vaccination hinder progress, she said.
“This concept of risk is interesting. We understand we take risks with a lot of things,” she said, mentioning car travel or late-night dog walks as examples. “With coronavirus, that risk seems so high to some to and others it’s not. [The risk is] somewhere in the middle. The risk of vaccination is really rare. As we move forward, the risk is not going to go to zero anytime soon.”
As the delta variant continues to cause havoc across the country along with other coronavirus variants making their debut in new infections, it might be time to reconsider travel and social plans even if one is vaccinated, experts say.
“This is a novel coronavirus. We’re still learning about it,” Malani said. “Each of these variants bring new challenges.”