A COVID-19 “variant of concern” has been detected in Hawaii, the state Department of Health announced Monday.
While the new COVID-19 strain has the technical name B.1.351, it sometimes is referred to as the South African variant.
The strain has two mutations that could be problematic for health officials who continue to combat the virus more than a year after the first COVID-19 case was reported in Hawaii: one that might make it more transmissible and a second that might make it less responsive to antibodies formed from a previous COVID-19 infection or vaccination.
Dr. Edward Desmond, director of the State Laboratories Division, said in a Zoom interview Monday morning that a variant originally found in the United Kingdom, B.1.1.7, has a mutation associated with a higher transmissibility rate and was first found in Hawaii about three weeks ago.
In the intervening time, Desmond said several other variants were found to have a different mutation associated with the reduced effectiveness of virus antibodies.
“The new news today is that we have the B.1.351 variant, which has both of these mutations,” he said. “So it is both more transmissible and less responsive to the antibodies that we form as a result of infection or vaccination.”
The mutation that increases transmissibility is called N501Y. The mutation that could reduce effectiveness of antibodies is called E484K. This is the first time both mutations have been found together in one virus, according to the DOH.
According to the DOH, the variant was found in an Oahu resident with no travel history.
Acting state Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said during the same interview the South African variant case is in an adult, but did not specify an age range.
There also are some household contacts who have tested positive for COVID-19 who are assumed to have the same variant, she said, and a workplace investigation also is underway.
Two new cases of the B.1.1.7 variant also have been found, for a total of eight B.1.1.7 variant cases so far detected in Hawaii.
This variant, first detected in Hawaii in early February, has the N501Y transmissibility mutation, but not the E484K mutation.
The most recent cases of the United Kingdom varient involve two Oahu residents, one who traveled to the mainland United States and a household contact of that individual.
Investigation into cases of recently detected variants is ongoing, and close contacts have been quarantined.
Kemble said neither variant is clearly associated with more severe illness, but they have been spreading more rapidly in areas where they are occurring.
“One of the items of concern is that there have been a few instances where a person who was previously infected with a strain that did not have the E484K mutation then subsequently was infected with a new strain that had the E484K mutation, like the South African variant,” Desmond said. “So that creates some concern that immunity is not absolute when you have one of these variant strains.”
But the plan to fight the virus, however, remains the same, Kemble said.
“The key to the variants is to control virus,” she said. “So, if we’re controlling the spread of the virus, whether we do it through masking, physical distancing, hand washing and staying home when sick, or we do it through vaccination or (a) combination — the combination is best, and that’s the current strategy — that’s still going to slow down spread of all these variant viruses as well. And slowing down the spread gives them less chance to further mutate and potentially cause additional problems.”
Kemble said the question of vaccine effectiveness against new virus variants is an important one.
“I do think, although in the test tube there have been some studies showing that more antibodies are needed to overcome some of the variants with the (E484K) mutation … overall the real world data has been reassuring,” Kemble said. “The Johnson &Johnson vaccine was tested in South Africa, where this variant predominates, and is still effective in that country, especially against the severe outcomes of hospitalization and death. So that’s important to keep in mind. Vaccine is still a key mitigation strategy, and it’s really important to get the vaccine when it’s our turn.”
According to the DOH, the State Laboratories Division continues to perform genomic sequencing weekly on COVID-19 samples from across the state in order to detect variant virus strains.