Brazilian strain of COVID-19 identified in Alaska

Published: Feb. 24, 2021 at 11:09 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The state’s chief epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin has confirmed that there has been a case of the P.1 variant of the novel coronavirus in Alaska. The variant has been traced back to Brazil.

In an email to Alaska’s News Source, McLaughlin wrote the person is an Anchorage resident who had not left the state recently.

“The patient reported eating a meal unmasked with others at a local restaurant about 4 days prior to symptom onset,” wrote McLaughlin. “It is possible that this may have been where the patient was exposed.”

In a media availability Wednesday, McLaughlin said the person tested positive on Feb. 8, and their test’s genetic sequence was confirmed Tuesday.

McLaughlin said the state is aware of someone who had close contact with that Anchorage resident who has tested positive for COVID-19 but they “have not yet sequenced that person’s virus to determine if it is the P.1 variant.”

According to the CDC, there have been five cases of the variant reported in the U.S., though as of Wednesday afternoon that tally did not yet include Alaska’s case.

McLaughlin said evidence suggests that some forms of the P.1 variant may affect its transmissibility and antigenic profile, which may make it difficult for antibodies from a previous COVID-19 infection to recognize and neutralize the virus.

This announcement came days after it was learned that the second case of a U.K. variant of the novel coronavirus was detected in Alaska.

Over 57,000 residents and nonresidents in the state have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the DHSS Case Dashboard. So with a more transmissible strain, what does it mean for Alaskans?

McLaughlin said that isn’t quite clear yet. He said its ability to evade natural antibodies may affect how well the vaccine works for those who have been vaccinated. But as to how much?

“We don’t know,” McLaughlin said Wednesday afternoon. “It will probably decrease the vaccine effectiveness somewhat, but to what extent is unclear to science at this point.”

McLaughlin said he would expect vaccinated people to have some level of defense against the P.1 variant of the coronavirus.

If this or another mutation of the coronavirus were to mutate far enough that previous infection and vaccination did not have an effect on its transmission or severity, McLaughlin said the state would likely have to return to the mitigation that’s been taking place over the past year.

But he doesn’t expect that to be the case.

“We’re not thinking that with these merging variants that prior immunity that people get from previous infection or vaccination is going to be blunted to that degree,” McLaughlin said.

With this single case being the third case in Alaska of one of the potentially more transmissible strains, McLaughlin addressed the question of how widely spread they may be in Alaska.

The state is sequencing about 20% of its positive samples, he said, so with three cases being caught — two related to travel — widespread transmission of these new strains is likely low in Alaska at this time.

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