The state Department of Health’s State Laboratories Division has confirmed the presence of a new COVID-19 variant in Hawaii.
The P.2 variant, which contains the E484K mutation, was identified through surveillance testing, the DOH said Friday.
The strain has so far been detected in one individual who lives on Oahu and recently traveled to the mainland. That person is in isolation and known close contacts are in quarantine.
Acting state Epidemiologist Sarah Kemble said during a Zoom call Friday morning that the individual was asymptomatic and no further transmission of the variant has been detected.
State Laboratories Division Director Dr. Edward Desmond said during the same call that the state participates in a surveillance program that proactively looks for variants, which is how the P.2 strain was identified.
As part of that, private labs across the state have been asked to save positive specimens for up to a week, he explained.
Desmond said the DOH Disease Outbreak Control Division determines which samples should undergo whole genome sequencing and requests that those specific samples are sent to the state lab for sequencing, which takes about a week.
“This enables us to look statewide because the list the DOCD prepares include all of the counties,” he said. “They also focus on specimens from outbreaks or people who have a travel history or some other reason to suspect they might have a variant strain.”
Desmond said the P.2 variant was originally found in Brazil.
According to Desmond, the E484K mutation means antibodies, either from a vaccine or previous infection, may offer less effective protection against the virus.
“Now notice I say less protective, I didn’t say that they’re not protective, so we still have some hopes.”
DOH said it is currently unclear whether this variant is more resistant to vaccines and antibodies gained through previous COVID infection.
While the implications of this additional strain are unknown at this time, two individuals in Brazil who were previously infected with COVID were reinfected with the P.2 strain, the DOH said.
The DOH said the P.2 variant is still being studied, but people previously vaccinated or previously infected are not expected to become seriously ill if infected with the strain.
Another concerning variant is associated with an increase of COVID cases on Maui, the DOH said.
The B.1.429 variant, previously called L452R, was first detected in Hawaii almost four weeks ago.
Four instances of that variant have been identified on the Big Island this year.
The B.1.429 variant was first detected in California in December and may be more transmissible than other COVID strains but the DOH said there is still much to learn about the variant, which is still considered “under investigation” by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We don’t know that this B.1.429 strain has any particular mutations of interest that cause resistance to antibodies, or that are associated with increased transmissibility,” Desmond said. “Nonetheless, there is that circumstantial evidence that it may be a problematic strain.”
It is not clear how effective current vaccines are against B.1.429.
Three additional cases of the more transmissible B.1.1.7 variant, which was first detected in the United Kingdom, also have been confirmed on Oahu, bringing the total number of B.1.1.7 cases in Hawaii to six. All six are on Oahu and are household contacts.
“New case counts are down from a month ago, but these variants remind us to remain vigilant,” state Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Char said in a news release. “The more the virus is able to infect people, the more opportunity it has to mutate, so it behooves us to prevent infections. We all know that is done by wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, avoiding large gatherings, and getting vaccinated when it is our turn.”
Kemble shared similar sentiments and said the response to these new strains is the same mitigation guidance the department has long touted: wear masks, social distance, stay home when you’re sick and wash your hands.
Getting vaccinated when one can also is “incredibly important,” she said.
“Although some of these mutations raise concerns about how effective antibodies can be, none of the ones detected here have been demonstrated to be escaping from the vaccine at this point in time,” Kemble said. “We still see vaccination as a critically important mitigation measure as well.”
Kemble said, too, that P.2 variant was brought in because of travel. And because there is ongoing travel to and from the state, there will always be the possibility of a new strain being introduced to Hawaii or the same strain being introduced from elsewhere.
But mitigation efforts remain key, she said.
Email Stephanie Salmons at firstname.lastname@example.org.