U.K. COVID Variant That May Be More Deadly Found in 22 U.S. States Including Washington

Washington state reported its first cases of the B.1.1.7 COVID variant over the weekend, public health officials said.

The variant, which was first detected in the United Kingdom, has now been found in at least 22 U.S. states, with the country reporting a total of almost 200 cases, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.)

Scientists say the new variant is around 50 to 70 percent more infectious than the original. Initial data on the variant indicated that B.1.1.7—otherwise known as VOC 202012/01—did not appear to cause more severe disease.

However, some evidence has emerged recently to suggest that the variant may be linked to higher mortality, although the data to support this hypothesis is not yet conclusive.

On Saturday, the Washington State Department of Health, Snohomish Health District and University of Washington Department of Virology announced that the B.1.1.7 variant had been detected in testing samples from the state.

Researchers identified the variant in samples taken from two residents from Snohomish County—located in the west of the state—in the period December 25, 2020-January 20, 2021.

Washington officials say the available data suggests there is a low prevalence of the variant in the west of the state given that only two cases were found among 1,035 samples tested in this period. But they warn more cases are likely to exist that have yet to be detected.

"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," Alex Greninger, assistant professor of the lab, said in a statement.

Health officials in Snohomish county had already begun a standard investigation of the two aforementioned cases—before it became apparent that they were infected with the B.1.1.7 variant—and initiated contact tracing efforts.

The graphic below, provided by Statista, shows the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States by state.

COVID Cases By US State
Statista

"Containment protocols are no different for B.1.1.7 variants than they are for all other cases of COVID-19. Follow-up investigation is underway to learn more about these cases and the individuals who tested positive for this strain," Chris Spitters, Health Officer for the Snohomish Health District, said in a statement.

The variant, which has a significant number of genetic mutations, first emerged in September 2020, spreading quickly across London and the southeast of England.

A report published earlier this month by the CDC predicted that the variant would become dominant in the United States by March.

"While finding the B.1.1.7 variant is concerning, we knew it was only a matter of time before we found evidence of it here in Washington," the state's Secretary of Health Umair Shah said in a statement.

"That said, the health and safety of all Washingtonians remains our top priority. Now that this variant has been found, it underscores the absolute importance of doubling down on all the prevention measures to protect Washingtonians against COVID-19."

On Friday, the British government's chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said there is evidence of "an increased risk" for those who are infected with the new variant.

He said the mortality rate for a 60-year-old man, for example, could potentially rise from 10 to 13 per 1,000 cases with the new variant compared to the original version. But Vallance said the "the evidence is not yet strong" and more research into this issue is required before any definitive conclusions can be made.

The novel coronavirus
Artist's illustration of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. iStock