Baylor School research scientists believe they've identified the new, seemingly more contagious U.K. COVID-19 variant in the Chattanooga region after in-house laboratory testing revealed mutations in two different coronavirus patient samples collected in December.
If their findings are confirmed, it would mean the variant — which appears to spread much more quickly but does not cause more serious or deadly illness than other COVID-19 variants — has been circulating in Southeast Tennessee since before it was formally identified in the United States.
The U.K. variant, known as B.1.1.7, was first documented nationally by Colorado health officials on Dec. 29 and has been reported in at least five states, including in Georgia on Tuesday. B.1.1.7 is sweeping across England and is blamed for fueling the country's latest coronavirus resurgence.
Tennessee Department of Health spokesperson Elizabeth Hart said via email that as of Wednesday "there are no confirmed cases of the new variant in our state."
However, experts have said it's likely that the U.K. variant is more widespread and has been circulating in the U.S. for some time without being identified, especially since the first confirmed patient in Colorado had no history of out-of-state travel. Georgia's first confirmed patient also had no travel history, according to a news release issued Tuesday by the Georgia Department of Public Health.
In March 2020, Baylor scientists Dawn Richards and Elizabeth Forrester began testing COVID-19 samples from regional providers. The team has analyzed roughly 100,000 specimens to date, Forrester said.
The researchers weren't actively looking for the variant but said they noticed it when data from a test conducted on Dec. 8 appeared different from others they had seen. That prompted them to run the sample again and keep looking for the variant, Forrester said. They detected a second probable variant case on Dec. 22.
"At that point, I think our ears really kind of perked up," Forrester said. "Because it hadn't even been identified in the United States, I don't know that we were so bold as to say, 'The U.K. variant is here in Chattanooga.' But we noticed it, and then noticed it again."
It's normal for viruses to change as a result of mutation, and multiple variants of SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — have already been documented. The U.K. variant was discovered this fall and turned heads due to its "unusually large number of mutations," according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Another variant recently discovered in South Africa is also causing concern and spreading more rapidly than other variants.
"It's just natural selection. Once a particular mutation is able to replicate more often in a particular population, it will take hold, and I think that's what we see here. The fact that it's more transmissible is advantageous for the virus," Forrester said.
Scientists are scrambling to learn more about the variants and how they might differ from others, including whether they could render COVID-19 vaccines less effective.
"Most experts believe this is unlikely to occur because of the nature of the immune response to the virus," the CDC website states, although much is still unknown about the novel coronavirus.
The New York Times on Monday reported that Matt Hancock, the British health secretary, said at a news conference, "The new variant makes everything so much harder because it spreads so much faster."
England went under a minimum six-week lockdown starting Tuesday, requiring everyone to stay at home except for exercise, medical appointments, essential shopping and a few other limited exceptions, according to The Associated Press.
Richards said Baylor's findings are supported by research from France, which is using the same method that the Baylor lab uses to screen for the U.K. variant on a national scale.
"So, we feel pretty well-positioned to say that this is likely that same variant," Richards said.
The group is currently working with public health officials to confirm the findings through additional genetic testing.
In the meantime, Forrester said it's a matter of public health that people know the variant is circulating.
"It isn't any more deadly, but the fact that it's more transmissible means that more people are likely to be infected, and at that point it's a numbers game," Forrester said. "The more people that are infected, the more severe cases and deaths you will have as an outcome of this particular variant."
Richards said the findings also underscore the need for continued precautions, since the COVID-19 vaccine just started slowly rolling out and health care systems are at their limits.
"This is a hard battle to win," she said. "If we're not really diligent about things like masking and eliminating gatherings, then it really could get out of hand."
As of Wednesday, Hamilton County was averaging 421 new COVID-19 cases a day in the past week and added 525 new cases for the day. The health department reported 4,035 active cases in the county, a record and the first time the active case count eclipsed 4,000.
There were 205 people hospitalized with the virus and 62 people in the intensive care unit Wednesday, according to the Hamilton County Health Department website.
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