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State Considers Extended COVID Variant Testing: New York Strain Identified

Joe Amon
Connecticut Public

The state confirmed Tuesday that a new form of coronavirus first detected in New York has now made its way to Connecticut. 

The variant, called B.1.526, has been detected 44 times, according to information released Thursday through a collaboration among the Yale School of Public Health, Jackson Labs and the state Department of Public Health.

It’s not immediately clear if the New York B.1.526 variant is more transmissible or virulent. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists B.1.526 as a “variant of interest,” which means the modified virus has specific genetic markers that could be linked to impacts on outbreak clusters, transmission or therapeutics. 

Scientists caution that more study is needed to determine the full extent of the variant’s impact.

Still, the variant is in Connecticut, despite mixed messaging from the state. 

Updated variant sequencing data released through the Yale School of Public Health on March 18 showed 44 cases of the B.1.526 variant had been sequenced from positive COVID samples in Connecticut.

When asked by a reporter Monday whether the variant was present in Connecticut, Josh Geballe, the state’s chief operating officer, said “They are starting to look for that now, and we don’t have any cases identified at this point.” 

A spokesperson for Geballe clarified the incorrect statement Tuesday as a “misunderstanding.”

“We are aware of Yale’s findings,” wrote Lora Rae Anderson, a spokesperson for Geballe. “We acknowledge those cases.”

Growing Prevalence Of Variants In Connecticut

COVID-19 variants occur when the genetic code of the virus mutates or changes. These mutations happen naturally as the virus circulates, but scientists nationwide are paying particular attention to “variants of concern,” which contain genetic mutations that can potentially magnify the ability of the virus to spread or cause disease.

On Monday, Gov. Ned Lamont said it’s unclear to him right now what percentage of the state’s COVID-19 cases are tied to coronavirus variants. 

“I don’t think we really know,” Lamont said. “We’re not really doing as much of that genetic sequenc[ing] as we could.”

Currently, genetic sequencing is the only way variants can be confirmed. But the process takes longer and is more involved than the diagnostic testing, which means variant “confirmed cases will be severely underreported and will have a two-three week lag,” according to the Yale surveillance website.

Last month, as Connecticut Public reported, the state had issued no formal agreements to Yale, JAX or any other vendors to outline the scope of genomic sequencing work, which made it difficult to assess how many positive tests would be scrutinized.

State officials Tuesday said they will soon consider hard targets for variant surveillance.

“We are in the process of finalizing a statewide genomic surveillance project,” DPH spokesperson Maura Fitzgerald wrote in an email. “Once finalized, which we anticipate soon, the plan will be to target up to 10% of the state’s total positive cases to be sequenced weekly.”

Meanwhile, COVID variants continue to grow across Connecticut. 

As of last week, Yale, JAX, and the state DPH reported 246 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant in Connecticut. That variant was first detected in the United Kingdom and is known to be more transmissible, according to the CDC

Connecticut health officials first reported the variant’s presence in Connecticut in early January

The U.K. variant has since spread rapidly, with the Yale surveillance team now noting that evidence “suggests that there is established community transmission of the variant in several places across the state.”

Other “variants of concern” also continue to spread in Connecticut.

Last week, public health officials sequenced five cases of the more transmissible B.1.351 variant first detected in South Africa and 46 cases of two variants first detected in California (B.1.427 and B.1.429). All show evidence of varying degrees of increased transmissibility. 

One case of the P.1 variant, which was first detected in Japan and Brazil, has also been detected in Connecticut.

This story has been updated.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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