UW lab calls for ‘extra vigilance’ after discovering COVID-19 variant that could ‘take over’

Experts say it was only a matter of time before the more transmissible COVID-19 variant originating in the United Kingdom made its way to the shores of Puget Sound. 

Two labs discovered three cases between Snohomish and Pierce counties. King County Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin warned that we’re "living in the shadow of a COVID-19 volcano."

The University of Washington Virology Lab first found two cases of the emerging strain by sequencing COVID-19 samples. The cases were both from Snohomish County. Later, a separate lab confirmed an additional case in Pierce County.

The U.K. strain is believed to be even more transmissible than the virus the state has been fighting for more than a year.

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"If it’s more transmissible, then that means that all things equal, it’s going to cause more cases than the original version and more cases mean more deaths," said Pavitra Roychoudhury, a professor for UW Department of Laboratory Medicine.

Roychoudhury said the lab has been searching for the variant since December and sequences 100 to 200 samples a week that share similar a characteristic to the UK strain. After weeks of searching, the two cases popped up. 

"It just calls for extra vigilance to try to get case numbers down as fast as we can before this strain or any other concerning strain takes over," she said.

"We need to expect the coronavirus equivalent of a Mount St. Helens-like eruption at some time in the next few months," Duchin warned.

In positive news, vaccine manufacturer Moderna announced Monday that there’s relatively no change in its vaccine effectiveness against the U.K. strain. News was less positive, however, with the strain originating from South Africa, which has yet to be identified in Washington state lab samples. 

Moderna confirmed through testing that they saw a sixfold reduction in the vaccine’s neutralizing power against the South Africa strain. The company said it still neutralized enough to protect but is launching a trial for a booster shot to see if it will produce more antibodies against the mutation.

"But there is a big concern that if you allow this virus to circulate, it will mutate and you may end up with a new strain that the vaccine is not effective against so you want to vaccinate as fast as possible," said Ali Mokdad with Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

To date, about 1% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated.

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