A patient from Dauphin County, Pennsylvania is the first confirmed case of a more contagious variant of the coronavirus that has fueled an aggressive spread and forced a nationwide lockdown in the UK.
Variant B.1.1.7 has not been shown to have different symptoms or cause more severe symptoms in patients, experts said, while warning that much is still unknown about it. The United States recorded its first case of the variant in Colorado last week, in a young man who had no travel history. Other cases have occurred in California, New York and Florida. The man infected with the virus variant in Florida also had no travel history.
Mutations in this variant of coronavirus appear to allow for easier spread.
Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine said in a statement that the Dauphin County patient tested positive after international exposure and was fine after having only mild symptoms. Contact tracers have been found, identified and monitor the patient’s close contacts.
Frederic Bushman, a microbiologist at Penn Medicine, told NBC10 that genetic sequencing work has shown what differentiates the British variant of the virus from other known versions.
The British variant has mutations that changed the spike protein, which the virus uses to enter human cells during infection.
“There’s been quite a bit of talk and a bit of evidence that maybe this virus is a bit better at landing on and getting into human cells as a result of that,” Bushman said.
(Current Pfizer and Moderna vaccines help the body prepare for these spikes and should work against this variant as well.)
The state has been sending 10 to 35 random samples to the CDC every two weeks since November. The CDC and a few specialist labs, including Bushman’s, are able to sequence the genetic code of a virus sample to determine if it is the variant.
The lab has sequenced around 7,500 genomes to date, or 50 per week. Examining the genetic code of so many different samples of the virus has helped understand how it spread during the pandemic, Bushman said.
As the first wave hit in March and April 2020, samples from patients in Philly around that time had a genetic code similar to versions of the virus seen in New York City, he said.
Sequencing can also indicate whether an outbreak may have occurred. For example, if a group of patients all have the same genetic version of the virus, they are likely to have contracted it in the same place.
The lab has yet to confirm a case of the British strain in Philly, but it could emerge as they continue their work. The lab is limited more by the volume of samples it receives than by its ability to test them, according to Bushman.
“If it’s really the case that it’s more spreadable, which seems likely, I think we’ll see it in Philadelphia. It’s probably already there and we just haven’t spotted it,” Bushman said.
“If there’s a bunch of different variants and they infect people, and one spreads a little more in a generation, then it’s more represented, then in the next generation, if it spreads a little more. so it’s a larger proportion. “
Earlier this week, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr Thomas Farley also said he wouldn’t be surprised if found in our area.
Officials said they would continue to focus on security after seeing the variant’s case.
“There is still a lot to learn about this new variant, so we must remain vigilant and continue to urge Pennsylvanians to stop the spread by washing their hands, practicing social distancing, avoiding gatherings,” Levine said.