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First Virginia case of COVID-19 variant identified

Just as COVID-19 case counts and the percentage of people who have tested positive for the virus in Virginia and Western Tidewater are starting to go down from record highs after the holidays, the state health department and its Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services has identified the first confirmed Virginia case of the faster-spreading variant now found widely in the United Kingdom.

The SARS-CoV-2 variant B.1.1.7 has been identified in a sample from a Northern Virginia adult who had no reported travel history, according to a Virginia Department of Health news release.

The B.1.1.7 variant, first found in the UK in late 2020, is linked to increased person-to-person transmission of COVID-19.

The state lab confirmed the case using what’s being described as next-generation sequencing that provides a genetic blueprint of the virus that causes COVID-19. The lab has notified the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the case.

“Viruses change all the time, and we expect to see new strains as disease spreads,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver in a statement. “We know this variant strain spreads more quickly between people than other strains currently circulating in our communities, but we still have more to learn about whether it causes more severe illness.

“As our state public health officials closely monitor the emergence of the B.1.1.7 variant in our Commonwealth, it is important that all Virginians continue following mitigation measures.”

Nearly 200 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant have been found in 23 states as of Jan. 22, and though scientists are working to better understand the impact of the new strain on vaccine efficacy, the state health department says early data suggests currently authorized vaccines — Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna — are effective against the new variant.

News about the new COVID-19 variant comes as the state’s seven-day positivity rate has dropped to 12.6%, with the Western Tidewater region — Suffolk, Franklin along with the counties of Isle of Wight and Southampton — at 15.8%. The positivity rate is 17.81% in Suffolk, 15.16% in Southampton County, 14.54% in Franklin and 14.14% in Isle of Wight County. Portsmouth has the highest seven-day positivity rate for COVID-19 at 22.34%.

Suffolk reported 62 cases Jan. 25, hitting its current seven-day average. Franklin reported 7 cases, just above its seven-day average of 6, Isle of Wight reported 40 cases, above its seven-day average of 23, and Southampton County reported 8 cases, just below its seven-day average of 9.

Moderna company officials said Jan. 25 that its COVID-19 vaccine was also effective against the variant from South Africa, which has yet to be detected in the United States.

However, while Moderna said its vaccine works against the South African variant, its efficacy, though still above the threshold for effectiveness, was diminished. The company said it was working on a vaccine that could be used as a booster to the two doses people are receiving currently.

VDH notes that as the virus spreads from person to person, it copies itself and sometimes makes mutations, or small genetic changes. Because of the mutations, new virus variants are expected to happen over time, with the B.1.1.7 variant containing “an unusually large number of mutations.”

The state lab began sequencing positive COVID-19 samples in March 2020.

“Sequencing is one of many tools we have available at the state’s public health laboratory to enable medical and public health officials to quickly identify and respond to threats such as emerging COVID-19 variants,” said state lab director Dr. Denise Toney.

The CDC says the modeled trajectory of the B.1.1.7 variant in the U.S. “exhibits rapid growth in early 2020” and will, by March, become the predominant variant, which “might threaten strained health care resources, require extended and more rigorous implementation of public health strategies and increase the percentage of population immunity required for pandemic control.”