Covid-19 variant first identified in South Africa confirmed in King County

The Covid-19 variant first identified in South Africa has been detected in King County, health officials said Tuesday. 

The variant, called B.1.351, was confirmed by a UW Medicine virology lab from a positive case reported Jan. 29. 

Dr. Jeff Duchin, public health officer for Public Health - Seattle and King County, said increasing variant cases are expected as the virus continues to evolve. 

The mutated version of the virus was first found in the United States last month. Scientists believe it is more easily spread than other virus strains and that it could be more resistant to vaccines currently on the market. 

But despite decreased efficacy with the new strain, vaccines will still prevent major illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths, State Epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist said. 

"This should not change anyone's approach to getting the vaccine," he said. 

The state has also doubled the number of B.1.1.7 variant cases since the first ones were discovered in Snohomish County. That variant, first detected in the U.K., is also more contagious than other variants. 

There were 39 total U.K. variant cases as of Tuesday. 

RELATED: City of Seattle prioritizing vaccines for Latino elders as data shows disproportionate impact

The United States is only genotyping about 1 percent of Covid tests to identify variants, a much lower number than the rest of the world, Lindquist said. 

In Washington, labs are testing about 2 percent of positive cases for variants, putting Washington in the top five states.

Duchin warned that although Covid-19 cases are decreasing, variant cases are increasing across the globe. The region remains "vulnerable to a fourth wave" of coronavirus infections, he said.  

"We can't be complacent, even though we're doing well right now," he said. 

He also said people who have had Covid-19 can be reinfected with either the original virus or a variant. 

"We need to assume that we're treating everything as a potential variant," Duchin said. 

Duchin said if the county continues to follow social distancing and other guidelines, "we could see a normal summertime."

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