This strain of coronavirus spreads more easily and quickly than the original variant, the Snohomish Health District said.
As of Friday, there were 195 detections of this version in 22 states, including Oregon.
“We thought this variant of concern was here and now we know it’s here. It was a huge team effort by the UW Medicine Virology Lab and required development of several new rapid tests to detect and confirm it,” said Dr. Alex Greninger, assistant director of the UW Medicine Clinical Virology Lab, in a statement.
Dr. Umair Shah, state health secretary, said the state has surveillance efforts in place to detect the new variant, known as B-117. Its arrival makes prevention even more crucial, he said at a news conference.
“We need to double down on all the efforts to wash our hands, watch our distance, wear our masks, and certainly to get tested,” Shah said.
Health officials didn’t provide details Saturday about the two people who tested positive for B-117. The variant was located locally through confidential, public health surveillance testing.
The UW Medicine lab identified the strain through genome sequencing, and there is capacity to surveillance-test 100 to 200 samples per week, said Pavitra Roychoudhury, acting instructor at the UW Department of Laboratory Medicine.
About one year ago, a man hospitalized in Everett was found to carry the novel coronavirus, which originated in China. That was the first reported U.S. case, followed by the nation’s first known lethal outbreak in a Kirkland nursing home in late February. Scientists later learned that severe coronavirus infections occurred in California in early 2020.
The U.K. variant appeared in September 2020 and has spread throughout London and southeast England. It is expected to be the dominant strain in the U.S. later this year.
Shah said it’s unclear how many cases the new strain is adding to the overall COVID-19 infection rates in the U.S., and researchers will look closely at that. Nationally, 417,394 people have died, and 24.9 million have been infected by the virus, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker.
Besides the U.K. mutation, others have emerged in South Africa and Brazil. Such variants are typical, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The variant from the U.K. is about twice as transmissible as the Chinese version, but isn’t any more lethal, Fauci told a national news conference Thursday. However, if it creates more cases, there would be more hospitalizations and deaths, he pointed out.
Fauci addressed the question of whether current vaccines would stop the new variants. “Even if it’s diminished somewhat, it’s still effective,” Fauci said. In fact, it’s all the more reason for rapid mass vaccinations, he argued — to reduce the risk that a more-prolonged COVID-19 pandemic will give rise to more variants.
However, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned Friday that based on new data, the British version may be 30% more deadly than the original.
Dr. Chris Spitters, Snohomish County health officer, said Saturday that “the recipe is the same” as before to prevent and diagnose the U.K. mutation.
“If we have more cases, we’ll have more hospitalizations, and then put further strain on an already burdened health care system,” he said.
Washington state has struggled to get vaccines out rapidly to its 7.5 million residents, hampered in part by software problems. An average 15,000 state residents per day have received vaccines, a rate the state hopes to triple soon. National supplies have lagged demand, while advisers to new President Joe Biden have said the Trump administration didn’t create a distribution plan.
Within the last few days, health officials have urged people to wear a two-layer face mask, or even double-mask, as some attendees did at the presidential inauguration Wednesday in Washington, D.C. Doing so would make it harder for aerosols containing COVID-19 to reach someone’s nasal and mouth passages.
The Washington State Department of Health reported 1,987 new cases Saturday, bringing the statewide total to 300,198 confirmed COVID-19 cases. The virus has taken 4,114 lives in Washington state.