Alaska health officials said Tuesday that they’ve detected the state’s first case of a mutant strain of COVID-19, first detected in South Africa, that both spreads more easily and appears to be less affected by certain vaccines.
A single case of the variant, known as B.1.351, was detected last month in the Anchorage-Mat-Su area, the state health department said in a new report on variants published Tuesday. The report did not include details about how the infected person acquired the virus, or whether others may have been exposed.
Cases of new, mutant strains of COVID-19 are rising sharply in the U.S., and experts warn that they could prolong the pandemic because of their higher contagiousness and their potential to evade vaccines.
The B.1.351 strain contains a mutation that, in lab studies, appears to make the vaccines produced by drug companies Pfizer and Moderna slightly less effective, while the shots manufactured by Johnson & Johnson, Novavax and Astrazeneca appear to be more affected.
The National Institutes of Health and Moderna have partnered to launch a new trial to test a vaccine booster shot against the B.1.351 variant. A top NIH scientist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said in a prepared statement last month that the study is being done out of “an abundance of caution,” and added that “preliminary data show that the COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the United States should provide an adequate degree of protection” against variants.
Tuesday’s report also said the state detected five new cases last month of a different, more-contagious strain of COVID-19 first found in Britain, known as B.1.1.7. Two cases of B.1.1.7, which is more contagious and appears to cause more severe illness, had been announced previously.
The five new cases of the B.1.1.7 strain were found in the Anchorage-Mat-Su area and Southeast Alaska, the report said.
One other concerning variant that’s been detected in Alaska is the P.1 strain, which was first discovered in Brazil and has been blamed for a sharp increase in cases in South America. Alaska officials announced one new case of P.1 in the Anchorage-Mat-Su area in its Tuesday report, for a total of six, though they said the case was from February.
The new variant cases announced Tuesday do not represent a full picture of how the strains are spreading across the state, as state scientists are testing a subset of samples.
This is a developing story — check back for updates.