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U.K. COVID-19 Mutant Strain Found In UH Lab Samples

Updated: 7:00 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021

The new, more contagious COVID-19 strain that originated in the U.K. has been discovered in Northeast Ohio, University Hospitals officials confirmed Wednesday.

Since December, UH researchers have been tracking emerging variants found in COVID-19 patient lab samples in Cleveland, including B.1.1.7, the variant that circulated widely in the U.K., officials said.

“It is felt that at this time the variants represent a low proportion of COVID-19 circulating in Northeast Ohio,” said UH spokesperson Carly Belsterling.

The samevirus variant was also found recently in Columbus

The first variants found in Ohio to be reported publicly were announced in Columbus by Ohio State researchers two weeks ago, said Mark Cameron, infectious disease researcher at Case Western Reserve University. One of the variants mirrors one that originated in the U.K., known as B 1.1.7, and the other was a mutation first discovered in Columbus.

Other variants, such as one discovered in South Africa, are likely already in Northeast Ohio as well, Cameron said. Health experts across the world are concerned because the variants transmit from person to person more easily – which could lead to more surges in cases, and potentially more deaths, he said.

“These new variants could very well have been part of this devastating peak across the country, taking advantage of transmitting between us over the holiday season,” Cameron said. “Now, we have these variants close to home, if not in our very backyard, and that is quite concerning,” Cameron said.

The mutations affect the virus’s spiked protein, which makes it easier to enter cells and infect people, he said.

“These new variants, and their additional ability to transmit among us, really resets what we understand about what works in blocking COVID-19 between us, and this is really disturbing,” Cameron added.

People should double down on precautions they are already taking against COVID-19, Cameron said, now that there are variants of the virus reported in Northeast Ohio. Public health officials may need to reassess safety measures currently in place in businesses, schools and other establishments open to the public right now.

“This changes everything. We will have to watch for loopholes and gaps in the protection that we have gotten used to, and the businesses that are open, and the practices that they’re practicing, because they may not be as effective,” he said.

It could mean implementing tighter restrictions at indoor dining and workplaces because those are places where people are coming into contact with each other, he said.

On an individual level, Cameron recommends people double up on face masks.

“We certainly want to maximize the number of layers between you and the environment,” Cameron said. “It has to be comfortable for the individual, that way that mask will be worn consistently.”

Cameron recommends three to four layers of protection. That could mean a triple-layer surgical mask with a fabric mask on top, two double-layer fabric masks worn together, or two surgical masks, he said.

Another concern is that the COVID-19 vaccines currently being distributed in the United States may not protect individuals from the variants. However, data released from Moderna this week shows its vaccine fares well against the variants, and there is reason to believe Pfizer’s vaccine does as well, Cameron said.

Both companies are developing booster shots just in case, as the South African variant was shown to reduce the effectiveness of the vaccines, he said.

Antibodies from a previous COVID-19 infection may not protect someone from the variants, and people are already becoming re-infected, Cameron said.

Current COVID-19 tests do not show whether someone has a variant of the virus, Cameron said. The only way to know is through sequencing virus samples in research labs.

There are several labs in the Cleveland area that have been tracking the virus for variants, but more funding and research is needed at the federal level for accurate, daily surveillance, Cameron said.

Cleveland Clinic officials are also sequencing COVID-19 in their labs to track how the virus evolves, but have not identified any of the variants yet, officials told ideastream.

Copyright 2021 90.3 WCPN ideastream. To see more, visit 90.3 WCPN ideastream.

Anna joined ideastream in 2019, where she reports on health news for WCPN and WVIZ in Cleveland. She has also served as an associate producer for NewsDepth. Before that, Anna was a 2019 Carnegie-Knight News21 fellow at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.