COVID-19 variant found by NC lab could mean trouble for health systems

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Mako Labs reported they’ve spotted a new variant of COVID-19, B.1.1.7, in 13 samples. So far the CDC reports just over a hundred cases linked to this variant across the country. None of those have been reported in North Carolina.

“I would assume it’s already here,” said Dr. Dirk Dittmer, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Dittmer’s lab analyzes samples to look for new varients. He said tracking mutations in the virus helps scientists track spread and ensure current testing still works.

“In addition to just counting how many people are infected, we now know which people are infected with which virus and that helps up identify if a lot of people got infected in the same place,” he explained.

The CDC has said the variant appears it may be more contagious. The agency has not been able to determine whether current COVID-19 vaccines are effective against variants.

How widespread is the B.1.1.7 variant?

The kind of work that finds new variants, genome sequencing, only happens at a small number of labs or universities like UNC and Duke. It’s why we can’t be certain exactly how many people have a mutated version of the virus.

If a variant turns for the worse, scientists can quickly readjust vaccines to ensure they stay effective.

So far, the CDC has reported 122 cases of this variant within the U.S. — although the CDC last updated that information on Jan. 18. While MAKO labs identified the cases in their samples, it does not mean those cases are in people in North Carolina.

The only neighboring state with the B.1.1.7 variant is Georgia with one case linked to the mutation.

Florida, with 46 cases, and California, with 40 cases, so far have the most cases linked to the variant.

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Easing concerns

“I want to make sure we respond to it but I’m not worried,” said Dittmer.

He said the public shouldn’t be overly concerned either.

“It does not impact your disease or how you’re treated. It helps us predict the future at this point,” Dittmer said.

Scientists are still trying to pin down why it seems new variants are sometimes more transmissible. In the meantime, double down on masking and social distancing to deter increasing case numbers.

“It’s starting to go down a tiny bit but if that new variant comes and becomes more transmissible, it will prolong the peak,” Dittmer said.

Challenge of tracking mutations

The challenge right now is being able to identify changes early enough through virus samples. That’s done through gene sequencing – a method of analyzing the DNA of a COVID-19 sample for changes in the virus. Dr. David Montefiori with the Duke Human Vaccine Institute has told CBS 17 the U.S., along with many countries, fell behind in analyzing samples to catch mutations.

The U.K., where the new variant was first detected, has remained proactive in sequencing to check for changes.

The CDC reported they are contracting with large national reference labs to provide sequence data from across the United States. The CDC has said they expect to sequence 1,750 samples per week. Meanwhile, the CDC reported 142,716 new cases in the last day alone.

They have also contracted with seven universities to do this work in collaboration with public health agencies.

Getting tested

Ensuring people are getting tested is how variants can continue to be tracked. Click here to learn where you can be tested for COVID-19.

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