WASHINGTON – Minnesota officials announced Monday that they have identified a person infected with a highly transmissible variant of the novel coronavirus that has been spreading at alarming rates in recent weeks in Brazil.
This is the first report in the United States of the P.1 variant, which has been of particular concern to scientists as they have observed the disastrous surge in infections in the Brazilian city of Manaus.
One research study published in the journal Science estimated that 76% of the Manaus population had been infected by the coronavirus. That should have put Manaus close to herd immunity. The new surge has raised fears that the P.1 variant has mutations that allow it to evade the human immune system. Evidence to support this hypothesis remains limited.
The Minnesota Department of Health said that the case there involved “a Minnesota resident with recent travel history to Brazil,” and that the variant was detected through genomic sequencing of random blood samples as part of a surveillance program.
The person, a resident of the Twin Cities metro area, reported feeling sick the first week of January and was tested Jan. 9. The health department said the person has been in isolation, and the department is continuing to investigate the case.
“This isn’t surprising. It’s a very difficult development, but at the same time not unexpected,” Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and an adviser to President Joe Biden’s coronavirus task force, said in an interview.
All viruses mutate, and there are countless variants in circulation. The variant identified in Brazil is one of three that have drawn particular global attention. The other two were first identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa, and are known to virologists as B.1.1.7 and B1.351.
Although scientists know quite a bit about the variant from the United Kingdom, the one from Brazil “is probably the one causing the most concern among people watching this,” William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said Monday. “It is fair to say that P.1 is the object of very, very serious attention and concern among epidemiologists. We don’t know why it has been so successful in Manaus.”
The variant identified in the United Kingdom – already spreading in the United States – has become the dominant strain in southern England, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said it could become dominant in the United States in March if it outcompetes other variants. Minnesota has detected eight cases involving the variant from the United Kingdom, officials said Monday.
The variant identified in South Africa has not been found in the United States.
“These cases illustrate why it is so important to limit travel during a pandemic as much as possible,” Minnesota epidemiologist Ruth Lynfield said in a statement released by the health department.
There is some overlap in the mutations in the three variants, but they arose independently and, along with other variants under review, provide a reminder that the coronavirus is not a static target for vaccines and the human immune system. Most scientists believe the vaccines will remain effective against the variants, a belief bolstered by research released Monday by Moderna, maker of one of the two vaccines authorized in the United States.
British scientists said late last week that they have preliminary evidence suggesting that the variant identified in the United Kingdom may be about 30% more lethal than the more common strain of SARS-CoV-2, the technical name for the novel coronavirus. The researchers emphasized that this is a new variant, and that they are trying to understand its effects. The scientific community has not produced evidence that the variants identified in South African and Brazil cause a different level of disease severity.
But the those variants have elicited particular concern among scientists because they contain mutations that may allow the virus to evade the effects of some antibodies, such as the monoclonal antibodies developed as therapies for patients with covid-19, the illness caused by the virus.
“This is the new reality of covid,” Osterholm said. “This is now the dawning of the age of the variants.”
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The Washington Post’s Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.