Massachusetts is one of several states analyzing suspicious coronavirus samples for a new variant that was first discovered in the United Kingdom and it is reportedly more contagious than other strains.
Dr. Greg Armstrong, who directs genetic sequencing at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in addition to Massachusetts, California, Delaware and many other states are currently working on the samples.
The CDC is working with a national lab that gets samples from around the country to broaden the search, with results expected within days.
When asked for comment about the variant, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health referred the Herald to a Wednesday press conference during which Health and Human Service Secretary Marylou Sudders said, “The one thing that appears to be true about this mutant is it’s highly, highly contagious.”
She added, “So we just assume that, you know, we know we have community transmission in Massachusetts, and we need everyone to engage in those good public health measures that we know are effective.”
Gov. Charlie Baker said “Both the Pfizer and Moderna folks have said they don’t believe that this variant would have any less of an impact of their ability for their products to actually work against it.”
California on Wednesday announced the nation’s second confirmed case of the variant following the first case found in Colorado.
Scientists have found no evidence that the variant is more lethal or causes more severe illness, and they believe the vaccines now being dispensed will be effective against it.
But a faster-spreading virus could swamp hospitals with seriously ill patients while the United States is currently in the midst of a record-breaking surge of cases and deaths.
Researchers estimate the variant is 50% to 70% more contagious, said Dr. Eric France, Colorado’s chief medical officer.
“Instead of only making two or three other people sick, you might actually spread it to four or five people,” France said.
New versions of the virus have been seen almost since it was first detected in China a year ago. It is common for viruses to undergo minor changes as they reproduce and move through a population.
South Africa has also discovered a highly contagious COVID-19 variant that is driving the country’s latest spike of cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
But coronavirus mutates much more slowly than other viruses such as influenza, which changes so quickly a new vaccine is needed every year.
The new variant adds additional pressure to speed up the ongoing vaccine rollout, of which 20 million first doses have already been allocated in the United States, Health and Human Services Sec. Alex Azar said on Thursday via Twitter.
Operation Warp Speed delivered by the end of 2020:
✅2 @US_FDA-authorized vaccines ✅5 vaccine candidates in Phase 3 clinical trials ✅20 million first doses allocated, with the second doses on hand ready to be shipped a few weeks later
This is unprecedented and historic.
— Secretary Alex Azar (@SecAzar) December 31, 2020
Herald wire services contributed to this report.
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