PHOENIX — A variant of coronavirus first spotted in the United Kingdom has made its way to Arizona, health officials confirmed late Friday.
Sources initially alerted ABC15 Friday morning that the variant, which has been shown to spread more easily from person to person, had been detected in our state and that officials were in contact with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about its arrival.
Our state has now joined more than a dozen others where the mutation, scientific name B.1.1.7., has been detected.
State health officials said the variant has been confirmed in three test samples so far, though specific information about who was infected with it, as well as when and how they arrived in Arizona, is not known.
“We have sequenced over 5,000 samples,” said Dr. David Engelthaler, an epidemiologist for TGen, also known as The Translational Genomics Research Institute. His team is on the hunt for these variants and said each mutation brings with it different concerns.
“Not all these mutations are equal, some will actually change the virus and potentially make it spread easier,” he said.
In fact, preliminary research of the UK variant suggests that it does just that -- spreads faster. Other research, though limited, shows that it could be deadlier than the original strain.
“We also are looking for any mutations that allow for immune escape -- essentially escape from the vaccines or cause people to get reinfections,” Dr. Engelthaler said.
Here is the good news: so far, the COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to work against these major variants that have begun to circulate the globe.
“This may make the vaccine a little less effective in protecting against those virus strains, but it won’t make it ineffective. Vaccines are so potent that reduction in their efficacy will still render them pretty useful,” said Dr. Joseph Petrosino, who works at Baylor College of Medicine.
The “Novavax Jab” vaccine, which has yet to be approved, showed in Phase 3 clinical trials that its two-dose vaccine was around 86% effective at protecting against the UK variant.
Health experts have said tweaking these vaccines to fight off new mutations is rather simple. They also believe that the current vaccines available should be similarly effective.
“The idea is, especially with the RNA vaccines, they’re easily tweaked and produced, so you can come up with boosters, or generate boosters relatively rapidly,” said Dr. Petrosino.
At the same time, knowing when these mutations arrive at our doorstep is the key to mitigating their impact.
Right now, Arizona lacks funding and resources to sequence the virus at a high rate. Officials have told ABC15 that 133 samples have been sent to the Utah Public Health Laboratory for analysis. They're also sending 27 samples to the CDC every two weeks.
This type of research needs to significantly increase, officials have said.
“It’s not been there, there’s been pieces of information, but that’s like missing pieces of intel, and we haven’t had really good eyes on this, but I believe we will be moving forward,” said Dr. Engelthaler.
“By knowing where various variants are, you can direct public health policy in terms of the drugs that become available and the changes that may be needed in boosting vaccines in the future,” said Dr. Petrosino.
Preliminary evidence has shown that the UK variant could be deadlier. The evidence reportedly comes from analyzing trends in the numbers of people dying with the UK variant versus the old variants.
The BBC reported that the new variant, which was first identified in England in September, could be as much as 30% deadlier.
Earlier this month, the CDC warned the UK variant could become widespread in the United States by March.