Health officials identify first case of COVID-19 variant in Virginia

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RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — The first case of a new strain of the coronavirus, first found in the United Kingdom, has been identified in Northern Virginia.

The Virginia Department of Health said in a release Monday the SARS-CoV-2 variant B.1.1.7 was identified in a sample from an adult resident with no reported recent travel history. VDH did not specify where in Northern Virginia the variant was identified.

A VDH spokesperson told 10 On Your Side that specific information beyond the region could not be released due to state and federal health care privacy laws.

The Department of General Services Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services (DCLS) confirmed the case using next-generation sequencing that provides a genetic blueprint of the virus that causes COVID-19.

DCLS officials have informed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the case.

In the United States, nearly 200 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant have been detected in 23 states as of January 22. The B.1.1.7 variant, which first emerged in the United Kingdom in late 2020, is associated with increased person-to-person transmission of COVID-19.

“There is a particular mutation in the spiked proteins that make it a concern,” said Dr. Edward Oldfield, an infectious disease expert at Eastern Virginia Medical School. “It binds much better with the human cell. Somewhere about 50 or 70% more infectious than the old strain.”

The VDH added that as the virus spreads from person to person, it makes copies of itself and sometimes makes small genetic changes, or mutations. Because of this, variations of the virus are expected to occur over time. The CDC has documented multiple variants of the virus in the U.S., but the B.1.1.7 variant contains an “unusually large number of mutations.”

“Most of the data suggests it’s not more dangerous than the old strain,” Oldfield said. “But there is some recent data out of the United Kingdom [that indicates it’s] a little a bit more aggressive and dangerous than the old strain. But that’s a little muddled right now.”

Oldfield said there’s some good news: There is no need to produce another vaccine.

“Both Moderna and Pfizer vaccine are just as good with this variant, just as they are with the old strain. There will be no difference in protection if this becomes widespread or not,” Oldfield said.

Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Western Tidewater health districts started 1b vaccinations on Monday as all of Hampton Roads enters phase 1b this week.

Group 1b includes front-line essential workers (teachers, grocery store workers, etc.), anyone age 65 and older, and those individuals age 16-64 with high-risk medical conditions.

Eventually, officials hope Virginians in 1c and later phases will be able to get the vaccine from a local pharmacy, primary care physician, etc. when supply does increase.

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