The Department of Health services reported on January 13th that a new COVID-19 variant had come to Wisconsin.
The new strain, which scientists refer to as B. 1. 1. 7., was first discovered circulating widely in England in November and December. While there is some evidence that the new strain could be more transmissible, there’s no evidence that it causes more severe illness or increased risk of death.
In a January 13th press conference, Dr. Ryan Westergaard — Wisconsin’s state epidemiologist for communicable diseases — described how this new strain was found in Wisconsin using specialized DNA testing .
“Yes, we’ve heard about a single case so far, and it was detected through whole genome sequencing that was done on a residual sample specimen from diagnostic testing in Eau Claire County,” Westergaard said.
The appearance of new strains like B.1.1.7 is not unusual.
Dr. David O’Connor is a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at UW-Madison’s school of Medicine and Public Health, where he runs a lab studying viral infections. Speaking with WORT, O’Connor said it’s common for viruses to mutate as they find new hosts.
“The genetic material for the coronavirus is called RNA, and when RNA makes copies of itself, sometimes those copies are sloppy, and a mistake gets made,” O’Connor said.
These mistakes in the RNA sequence sometimes create a new viral strain. According to the Wall Street Journal, both B.1.1.7 and another new coronavirus strain that originated in South Africa show similar mutations on the same protein.
The Associated Press and other news outlets have focused on the fact the B.1.1.7 strain appears to transmit between people more quickly than other strains. Dr. Thomas Friedrich, who studies diseases and immune systems at UW-Madison, shares this same suspicion.
“This variant does appear to be more contagious, more transmissible between people, about one and half times as transmissible as previous strains. So, that’s concerning to us because it means that virus might spread a bit easier, and might be a little harder to control,” Friedrich said.
This increased transmissibility rate is projected by the findings of a preliminary study done by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which has not yet been peer reviewed. The researchers modeled the epidemiology of new strains to find how quickly they would spread. This model found that B.1.1.7 could be 56% more transmissible than older strains.
The CDC remains hesitant to confirm that the B.1.1.7 strain is more infectious without more data.
In addition to B.1.1.7, teams at Ohio State University recently unveiled their discovery of a new U.S. based strain. At a press briefing on January 13th, Dr. Dan Jones, COVID-19 researcher and professor of pathology at OSU, explained how they came upon this new strain when studying B.1.1.7 and the South African variant.
“What we found was a new variant that contains the mutation in the spike protein that is common between the United Kingdom and South African variants, but is on a backbone that we think is a U.S. derived backbone,” Jones said.
At the time of this report, this strain has only been found in a single patient in Columbus, Ohio.
The occurrence of new strains has created some uncertainty about whether our current vaccines will be able to hold up — but Dr. Peter Mohler, the Chief Scientific Officer at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, said that worry is unfounded.
“To date we have no data that the vaccine will not be effective on these viral strains, and I want to continue to say that over and over. To date we have no data that these viral strains will be ineffective for our current vaccines,” Mohler said.
There is also no evidence that new strains are more deadly or cause more severe illnesses. But, as the COVID-19 virus mutates, Dr. Westergaard said the same preventative measures continue to work — stay at home, mask up and social distance when you go out.
“All of the interventions, all of the prevention strategies will work. So the message to the public is we have to do what we’ve been training ourselves to do, and all the things we’ve been doing. We just have to do them with greater intensity and fidelity, and not cut any corners,” Westergaard said.