Alaska News

Rare U.S. case of highly contagious COVID-19 variant from Brazil identified in Alaska

A first in-state case of a highly transmissible coronavirus variant originally traced back to Brazil has been discovered in Alaska.

The case was first discovered on Tuesday in a specimen collected from a person in Anchorage who developed COVID-19 symptoms earlier this month and had no known travel history, a state public health official told the Daily News.

It is the sixth case of the P.1 variant to be discovered so far in the United States, making Alaska one of just five U.S. states with a known case of this particular variant.

Dr. Joe McLaughlin, an epidemiologist with the state health department, said the P.1 variant has drawn particular worry from virologists.

Not only is there evidence to suggest it is more transmissible than the original virus — it devastated the Brazilian city of Manaus where it appeared to originate — but its mutations also “appear to change the antigenic profile of the virus,” he said.

That means that it can potentially be contracted by someone who was already infected with the original strain, or who has been vaccinated.

What’s also worrisome is that the Anchorage person who contracted the virus had no known travel history, which could indicate possible community spread, McLaughlin said.

“That does make it more concerning,” he said. “So we are trying to do a thorough epidemiological investigation to figure out where the person actually got infected from.”

McLaughlin said the person who contracted the virus did report eating at a restaurant in Anchorage with at least one other individual while unmasked in late January.

“And (the person infected with the virus) then developed symptoms in early February, about four days later, and then tested positive on Feb. 8,” he said.

McLaughlin said he is aware of one close contact of the person confirmed to have COVID-19, “and we’re investigating other possible contacts.”

The public health team is working on locating that close contact’s test specimen, and sequencing it to check for the variant will take a few days, said Jayme Parker, who heads the Alaska’s public health laboratories.

State health authorities did not release any further information about the person with the variant.

The discovery of the P.1. variant in Alaska comes as new COVID-19 cases here are generally declining.

The P.1. variant, which was first detected in the U.S. in January, is one of three highly contagious coronavirus variants in wide circulation that have garnered concern worldwide. The other strains two were first identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa, and are known to virologists as B.1.1.7 and B1.351 respectively.

Two other cases of coronavirus variants have been identified so far in Alaska, McLaughlin said. Both were travel-related cases of the more common B.1.1.7 virus variant first detected in the United Kingdom.

The first case of B.1.1.7 in Alaska was discovered in January involving someone infected in December, and the second was identified during sequencing completed over the weekend, from a specimen also collected in January.

“That patient was asymptomatic, and tested positive through airport screening in mid-January after they got back from their trip in the Lower 48,” McLaughlin said. “This person didn’t have any close contacts with symptoms.”

Nationwide as of Tuesday evening, 1,881 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant had been identified in 46 U.S. states, according to the CDC. Forty-six cases in 14 states had been identified of the the third variant, B1.351.

McLaughlin said it was likely that more cases of the variants would be detected in Alaska, and that it was an important reminder that “COVID is still circulating.”

“We really want people to continue following all the mitigation strategies,” McLaughlin said. “There’s a reasonably high probability that the infection may have incurred while the person was eating at a restaurant with another person, so we just want to make sure people continue to stay within their social bubbles.”

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