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South African COVID-19 variant confirmed in Washington, Idaho

UPDATED: Tue., Feb. 23, 2021

A COVID-19 variant originally identified in South Africa has been confirmed in both Washington and Idaho as of Tuesday.

The B.1.351 variant has not been associated with more severe disease or more transmission. However, it might reduce the effectiveness of some COVID-19 vaccines.

A COVID-19 case confirmed in King County on Jan. 29 was geo-sequenced at the Washington Virology Lab and confirmed to be the South African variant on Tuesday. Health officials had few details about the variant case because the person was unable to be reached through contact tracing efforts.

The number of U.K. variant cases of COVID-19 in Washington doubled this week as well, and the B.1.1.7 variant is more widespread in Washington so far than the South African variant.

There are now 39 confirmed cases of the B.1.1.7 variant in Washington, and it seems to spread quicker, worrying health officials about the potential for a new surge in cases. Available COVID-19 vaccines appear to offer protection against the U.K. variant of the virus, however.

State and local health officials asked people to double down on wearing well-fitting masks, social distancing and limiting gatherings to keep case counts declining and prevent the spread of variants.

“I am very concerned for how this will affect our trajectory,” Acting State Health Officer Dr. Scott Lindquist said. “Now is the time to double down on efforts to help stop the spread of these variants across the state.”

While the South African variant might reduce the effectiveness of currently approved vaccines, those vaccines still offer important protection against local strains of the virus, as well as against severe disease and hospitalization due to the South African variant, according to health officials.

Preliminary studies show that the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines have somewhat decreased effectiveness against the South African variant, although more research needs to be conducted to confirm these findings.

“The safest thing to say is there’s some reduced protection – I don’t think it’s well characterized yet, that reduction or its implications on human health,” King County Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin told reporters Tuesday. “It appears that vaccines remain protective against severe disease and hospitalization.”

The potential of a third vaccine coming soon might help mitigate spread of the South African variant.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which could be approved as early as next week, was tested in South Africa and seven other regions, and was found to be 85% effective at preventing severe disease across all regions where it was tested, including in South Africa, where the majority of cases were the B.1.135 variant.

Lindquist said that while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine might not be as effective overall as the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech ones, it still is very effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalization and death, and the fact that it was tested in regions with the South African strain is encouraging.

Health officials stressed that the news of new variants should not change anyone’s behavior when it comes to vaccinations.

“Our vaccines are incredibly effective against the strains that are common here locally,” Duchin said. “Our vaccines that are currently authorized are incredibly effective against B.1.1.7 and highly protective, and there’s no reason to assume that the South African B.1.351 variant will become dominant.”

On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration released guidance for drug manufacturers looking to address variants through booster shots or altering vaccines. The move should expedite the process for manufacturers to know which guidelines they need to follow if they need to adjust their vaccines for certain variants.

The FDA recommends that companies use clinical studies to determine the effectiveness as they modify vaccines, comparing the modified vaccine to the currently authorized vaccine.

Health officials said vaccinating people as quickly as possible, as well as continued adherence to public health measures, will be vital to preventing a fourth wave of cases in the state.

In the U.K., Ireland and other countries in Europe, the U.K. variant led to massive outbreaks and countrywide lockdowns to control it. Health officials said all of that could be avoided here if residents continue to take precautions.

“If we stay strong for a few more months and continue to decrease transmission and continue to get people vaccinated, we can avoid a severe fourth wave and have a much more normal summertime,” Duchin said.

The Department of Health, with the help of other labs like the UW Virology lab, is genotyping about 2% of all positive COVID-19 tests for variants, with a goal to reach 5% in the coming weeks. With so few samples genotyped, it’s difficult for health officials to estimate how many more cases of the variant are actually out there.

“Although we expect the proportion of these variants to grow in the coming weeks, it’s not possible to predict how fast this will happen and how one or the other will change the trajectory of our outbreak,” Duchin said.

So far neither the U.K. nor South African variants have been detected in Eastern Washington, but officials said its absence in testing in Eastern Washington likely is the result of the limited samples being genotyped from the eastern side of the state.

“I believe it’s there, but we’re not sampling enough to detect it yet,” Lindquist said.

Last Friday, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare confirmed the first case of the South African variant in a person living in southwest Idaho, however. So far, the South African variant has been confirmed in at least 10 states.

On Tuesday, Medical Director in the Division of Public Health Christine Hahn confirmed a second case of the South African variant in Idaho but did not have further details about the case.

Testing on the Boise wastewater system has confirmed the presence of variants in the state as well. Public health officials there are asking residents to mask up and physically distance to keep the new variants from spreading rapidly.

Idaho has very different guidelines for how restaurants, stores and gatherings can operate than Washington. Restaurants and bars are allowed to be open at full seating capacity, and gatherings of up to 50 people are allowed.

In Washington, indoor gatherings are limited to five people from another household and on the whole discouraged. Stores and restaurants are limited to 25% capacity .

On Tuesday, Lindquist said the Department of Health is in constant communication with the governor’s office about the restrictions in place in Washington. Despite case counts and hospitalizations being on the decline statewide, Lindquist said the doubling of the U.K. variant cases in the state is concerning.

All Washington counties are in Phase 2 of the governor’s Roadmap to Recovery, and further phases have yet to be announced.

Here’s a look at local numbersThe Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 87 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and three additional deaths.

In Spokane County, 574 residents have died due to COVID-19.

There are 58 people hospitalized with the virus in Spokane hospitals.

The Panhandle Health District confirmed just 20 on Tuesday and two additional deaths.

There have been 254 deaths due to COVID-19 in Panhandle residents.

There are 19 Panhandle residents hospitalized with the virus.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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