CORONAVIRUS

Contagious U.K. coronavirus strain found in Johnson County

One case also discovered in Bremer County

This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases-Rocky Mountain
This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases-Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles that cause COVID-19. Viruses are constantly mutating, with coronavirus variants circulating around the globe. (NIAID-RML/Associated Press)
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Three cases of a new, more-contagious variant of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Iowa, with two of those cases in Johnson County, the Iowa Department of Public Health confirmed.

The SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.7 variant, often referred to as the U.K. variant because it was first found in the United Kingdom, spreads more easily than the original strain. However, COVID-19 vaccines now being deployed in Iowa are considered effective against it.

Two cases of the U.K. variant were identified in Johnson County, one in an adult identified as between the of ages 18 to 40 and another in an adult ages 41 to 60. Another adult case was in Bremer County.

“IDPH and local public health have already initiated contact with these cases to understand their exposures and initiate the health monitoring process,” state public health officials said in a news release Monday.

“The process will include notifying anyone with whom these individuals have been in close contact. The individuals will be advised to isolate in accordance with IDPH and (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance.”

Public health officials do not believe the three Iowans with the U.K. variant caught the virus from one another.

“The three strains have other mutations that would indicate that they did not acquire it from each other or the same source,” Public Health Spokeswoman Sarah Ekstrand said in an email Monday night.

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The new strain was confirmed Monday morning at the State Hygienic Laboratory, in Coralville, which has been participating in the CDC’s SARS-CoV-2 Strain Surveillance Program by sending COVID-19 test samples to be sequenced for the B.1.1.7 variant since early December, the state reported.

Lab staff recently began doing their own internal sequencing, which takes five to six days, to look specifically for the variant. Routine analysis of genetic sequence data assisted in identifying the new variant strain in Iowa.

The lab sets a goal of sequencing 45 positive samples per week, selecing a specific virus mutation identified by the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, the Public Health Department said. It is a variable number because not every sample has sufficient RNA to sequence.

Another 19 samples every two weeks go to the CDC for sequencing.

The Association of Public Health Laboratories, of which the State Hygienic Lab is a member, reported on its website participating labs are requested to provide specimens that “ideally represent a variety of demographic and clinical characteristics and geographic locations,” which will “ensure a representative set of sequences are generated for national monitoring.”

Dr. Caitlin Pedati, state medical director and epidemiologist, said in a prepared statement virus mutations are expected.

“Sometimes new variants emerge and disappear,” she said. “Other times, new variants emerge and persist. Multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been documented in the United States and globally during this pandemic.”

Other COVID-19 variants include B.1.351, first identified in South Africa, and P.1, identified in travelers from Brazil, the CDC reported.

Updates to Iowa’s B.1.1.7 cases will be shared on the CDC’s website. These case counts only represent the variant strains that are confirmed through genomic sequencing, and may not accurately reflect the true number of variant cases.

Mitigation efforts that slow the spread of COVID-19 include:

• Wearing a mask or face covering

• Practicing social distancing with those outside your household

• Cleaning your hands frequently with soap and water

• Staying home if you feel sick

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Getting tested if you are exposed to, or have symptoms of COVID-19

Getting a COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available to you.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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