DENVER – Colorado officials have identified the state’s, and possibly the country's, first case involving a COVID-19 variant seen in the United Kingdom and some other countries in recent weeks, the governor’s office announced Tuesday.
The variant, B.1.1.7, was identified in a man in his 20s who is currently isolating in Elbert County. The man had no travel history and public health officials have so far not identified any close contacts of his, though the investigation is ongoing.
The state said its lab was the first in the country to identify the new variant. A PCR test done on the sample did not find a so-called “S gene” signal, which officials say is a signature for the variant of COVID-19.
Scientists then sequenced the genome from the man in Elbert County’s sample and found eight mutations that the Colorado Department of Health and Environment say are specific to the variant’s signature spike protein.
“The fact that Colorado has detected this virant first in the nation is a testament to the sophistication of Colorado's response and the talent of CDPHE's scientist and lab operations,” said CDPHE Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan in a statement Tuesday. “We are currently using all the tools available to protect public health and mitigate the spread of this variant.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control said in a statement that it expects additional cases of the variant will be detected in the U.S. in coming days and said the variant “appears to transmit at a higher rate.”
“Based on studies with other viruses containing similar mutations, CDC believes there will be little or no impact on immunity from natural infection or vaccination,” the CDC said in a statement. “CDC, together with FDA, is evaluating diagnostic test performance against the variant and expects that all diagnostic tests presently available will detect the variant. For those who are eligible, please obtain your vaccine.”
The CDC said it is “initiating a substantial increase in sequencing” as the virus changes and working with state and local health departments.
The variant has been identified in countries across the globe, but scientists are still trying to figure out whether it is truly more severe than prior strains of COVID-19 and whether or not it is more contagious, which initial research has suggested.
There have been restrictions surrounding travel from the U.K. to other countries put in place in recent weeks, including a testing requirement for people traveling to the United States and all-out bans on air travel from the U.K. to other countries.
Dr. Anthony Fauci said earlier this week that scientists were “intensively” studying the variant and its effects.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and Ryan, the public health department executive director, are expected to further discuss the variant’s arrival in Colorado during a 10:15 a.m. news conference Wednesday. Polis and state health officials will also discuss adjustments to the vaccine distribution list.
“There is a lot we don’t know about this new COVID-19 variant, but scientists in the United Kingdom are warning the world that it is significantly more contagious. The health and safety of Coloradans is our top priority and we will closely monitor this case, as well as all COVID-19 indicators, very closely. We are working to prevent spread and contain the virus at all levels,” the governor said in a statement.
Dr. John Hammer of Rose Medical Center said in interview Tuesday there is still much to be learned about the variant, but that there are some indications it could be as much as 50% more transmissible than other COVID-19 variants but is not currently believed to lead to more-severe illnesses.
He said he assumes there has been other cases involving the variant and that new variants were something doctors and scientists were anticipating.
“There is always the risk that any virus can mutate over time to the point where it would be resistant to the immune response against it, but typically, that takes months to years,” Hammer said. Coronaviruses, like many other viruses, are known to mutate over time, so this is not unexpected.”
Dr. Michelle Barron, the senior director for UCHealth infection prevention, echoed similar sentiments.
“I think it’s more important to just be aware that it’s here, and I think the contagiousness factor is something we want to be aware of as well,” she said. “The good news is all the metrics we've been telling you to use – wearing your mask, washing your hands, social distancing and limited gatherings – is still going to work for this even if it’s more contagious. if you follow the rules and do the things that we've been telling you probably since March, you should still be protected.
Denver7's CB Cotton contributed to this report.