New York to Test for New COVID Strain That CDC Says May Already Be in U.S.

Hospitals in New York have begun testing for a new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned that it may already be circulating in the United States undetected.

The variant, dubbed the "B.1.1.7 lineage" or "VOC 202012/01," was detected in the southeast of England in September. U.K. scientists think that it could be significantly more transmissible than the original virus, although there is still much unknown about it. Current evidence suggests that it does not appear to cause more severe disease.

On Tuesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he had directed hospitals in the state to test specifically for the new variant.

"If the variant is here, I want to know, because that would be problematic," Cuomo told reporters during a phone briefing. "We want to test for the variant. If it's here we want to know it. We want to isolate it immediately. If it's here, where is it?"

No evidence has yet emerged to suggest that the variant is present in New York, or anywhere else in the U.S. The Wadsworth Laboratory in Albany has already examined more than 3,700 SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequences detected in New York, with no sign of the new variant in any of the samples, according to Cuomo.

But the governor said the state needed to be prepared, given that the variant has now been detected in several more locations around the world outside the U.K.

"Chances are if it's moving globally, it came here," Cuomo said.

Wadsworth and the state Department of Health have made agreements with six New York hospitals to obtain additional samples. The lab is also in contact with other medical facilities to do the same as part of the effort to detect the new variant.

"Any hospital that has the lab capacity to take the test, we will be providing them with the ability and the testing reagents," Cuomo said.

If the new variant is detected in New York, the governor said public health authorities would immediately launch contact-tracing efforts, while infected individuals isolated.

On Tuesday, the CDC said the B.1.1.7 lineage may already be circulating in the U.S. Scientists have yet to detect the variant in the country, but the agency said researchers have only sequenced the genetic coding from a relatively small number of COVID-19 cases.

"The VOC 202012/01 variant has not been identified through sequencing efforts in the United States, although viruses have only been sequenced from about 51,000 of the 17 million U.S. cases," a CDC statement read.

"Ongoing travel between the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as the high prevalence of this variant among current U.K. infections, increase the likelihood of importation. Given the small fraction of US infections that have been sequenced, the variant could already be in the United States without having been detected."

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo arrives for a news conference on September 8, 2020 in New York City. Hospitals in New York have begun testing for a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 virus that could be significantly more transmissible than the original. Spencer Platt/Getty Images