Delaware officials on lookout as variant invades U.S.

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WILMINGTON — Twenty-two states have detected at least one case of the new COVID-19 variant. Delaware, however, is not one of them yet.

Delaware Division of Public Health officials are monitoring the new strain of the virus, which was identified in the United Kingdom and is called B117. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this B117 variant is likely to become the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States by March.

“I will not be surprised when and if we find it,” said DPH Director Dr. Karyl Rattay at a COVID-19 press briefing last week.

Virus mutations are nothing new, says University of Delaware Professor Dr. Jennifer Horney, founding director of UD’s epidemiology program.

COVID-19 itself had already developed several variants, such as last March when D614 arrived in China and the United States. D614 and another variant, G614 in Europe developed during this time and by April, the European variant was dominant in the US, said Dr. Horney.

The CDC is also currently monitoring 1.351, which emerged in South Africa in October. There is also a variant P1 that scientists discovered in Brazil. Neither has appeared in the United States yet.

“Viruses constantly mutate, which are typically just minor changes in their genetics that happen due to errors in copying,” Dr. Horney said. “Over time, these small changes can result in changes to viral proteins or antigens.

“I think it is important to emphasize that these variations are not unexpected,” Dr. Horney added.

One of the biggest concerns about the B117 variant from the United Kingdom is early research has shown it to be more contagious than previous versions of COVID-19.

A more transmissible virus — as the United States is experiencing a surge of cases after the holiday season — rings some alarm bells, especially if the recent rollout of COVID-19 vaccine does not pick up the pace.

“The risk of increased transmission is that a certain proportion of those infected may be hospitalized, and our hospital capacity in many states is critically low,” Dr. Horney said. “The other major concern is that the virus could mutate to such an extent that those previously infected would have less protection from reinfection and that the vaccine would no longer be effective at preventing severe disease.

“Although there is no evidence that any changes to the virus make it resistant to the vaccines, or that that will happen anytime soon, it does provide further support for the need to vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as possible.”

Dr. Horney said regardless of the potential for new variants, it is very important the public remains vigilant with masking, social distancing and good hygiene to prevent spread of any disease. She also encouraged all individuals to get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as they are eligible.

Variants present another reason for wanting enough persons vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.

“It is all the more reason to try to get vaccine into people’s arms as quickly as possible,” Dr. Rattay said. “The same mitigation strategies work for this variant as well, so we really have to stay the course.”

All three of Delaware’s neighboring states have discovered at least one case of the B117 variant — Maryland has recorded four while Pennsylvania and New Jersey each have reported two. California has posted the most cases of B117 with 72, followed by Florida’s 50 and New York’s 22.

As of Friday, there have been 195 confirmed cases of the variant nationwide, according to the CDC.

The DPH labs are looking for the variant in Delaware, but have not discovered it yet.

“Our laboratory has a technique where they can screen to identify whether a particular specimen needs an additional analysis,” Dr. Rattay said.