More cases of the newer and more contagious COVID-19 variants first discovered in the United Kingdom and South Africa have been discovered in Virginia.
On Friday, Feb. 12, the Virginia Department of Health announced that one additional case of the U.K. variant, formally known as variant B.1.1.7, has been identified in a sample from an adult resident of Eastern Virginia with no history of travel outside of Virginia. It is the sixth known case of the U.K. variant in Virginia, according to a VDH news release.
In addition, a second case of the South African variant, formally known as B.1.351, was also identified in an adult resident of Eastern Virginia.
The U.K. variant has now been discovered in COVID-19 cases in Northern Virginia, Northwest Virginia and now Eastern Virginia.
As of Friday, Feb. 12, Virginia has identified a total of eight cases of the variants: six cases of the U.K. B.1.1.7 variant and two of the B.1.351 variant, according to a VDH press release.
“With our surveillance efforts, it is likely that additional cases will continue to be identified,” the release said.
The VDH identified the state’s first case of the U.K. variant on Monday, Jan. 25, in Northern Virginia, and the first case of the South Africa variant on Friday, Feb. 5, in Eastern Virginia.
A preliminary report from experts indicates the U.K. variant causes more severe illness than other variants, but more studies are needed to confirm this finding, the VDH press release notes.
There is no evidence yet to suggest that the South African variant has any impact on disease severity, but studies have shown that at least one version of a COVID-19 vaccine under development – the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine -- doesn’t provide as much protection against the South African variant.
South Africa put its rollout of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine on hold early this week after a study showed disappointing results against the variant. The variant now accounts for 90% of the COVID-19 cases in South Africa.
Still, experts are hopeful the vaccine will be effective at preventing severe cases of COVID-19.
Because the new variants are so much more contagious, experts analyzing Virginia’s COVID-19 pandemic predict the variants could become the most prevalent cause of COVID-19 in the commonwealth by late March, said Dr. Danny Avula, who is overseeing Virginia’s COVID-19 vaccination effort, in a press call Friday afternoon.
Moderna is developing a booster shot to make its vaccine more protective against the South African variant, Avula said.
VDH officials are continuing to stress that Virginians “comply now” with mitigation efforts, including wearing a mask, staying at least 6 feet from others, washing hands often, getting vaccinated for COVID-19 and staying home if infected with COVID-19 or after having close contact with someone with COVID-19.
The CDC is also recommending that people wear two masks, with a cloth mask worn over a paper surgical mask, to improve the fit of the mask and better block virus particles.
Virginia’s Department of General Services Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services began sequencing positive COVID-19 samples in March 2020, becoming one of the first public health labs in the nation to use this technology to examine the genetic makeup of the virus and track how it is changing and being transmitted in the commonwealth, the VDH said in its release.
To date, DCLS has sequenced more than 10% of positive samples received by the state lab, and is working with other labs in Virginia to solicit additional positive samples so public health officials can get a representation of variants circulating throughout Virginia.