Novel version to blame for 15 on Big Island

Nearly 350 cases of COVID-19 in Hawaii have been caused by a variant strain of the novel coronavirus, according to data provided Friday by the state Department of Health.

Fifteen of those variant cases have been found on the Big Island.

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Dr. Edward Desmond, administrator of the State Laboratories Division, said Friday during “The Weekly Dose,” a livestream hosted by the DOH, the variants have developed since December.

Three have so far been identified in Hawaii.

B.1.1.7, which was originally found in the United Kingdom, has the N501Y mutation that is associated with increased transmissibility.

“In places where this virus is introduced, it tends to become dominant because it spreads more readily,” Desmond said.

B.1.351, or the South African variant, has the N501Y mutation associated with increased transmission, as well as the E484K mutation, which makes antibodies a person may have after a vaccination or prior COVID-19 infection less effective.

“The antibodies are not going to work quite as well against this B.1.351 variant, the South African variant,” Desmond said.

“Now, the good news is, even though the antibodies are less effective, people who have been vaccinated or previously infected, they are still not going to get seriously ill. So, you don’t have to be concerned that the vaccine is not going to protect you because of these variants. Get vaccinated anyway. You may get a mild case, but the vaccine prevents serious illness, and you won’t go to the hospital.”

B.1.429, the California variant, has the L452R mutation, which is associated with increased transmission, and antibodies also are “slightly less effective” against this strain.

According to data presented by Desmond, 59% of virus specimens found in March through random testing statewide were found to be the B.1.429 California variant.

“This has become dominant in our state,” he said.

Meanwhile, 8% of specimens were the B.1.1.7 U.K. variant and 2% were the B.1.351 South African variant.

Statewide, there have been 302 cases of the B.1.429 strain, 37 of the B.1.1.7 and seven cases of the B.1.351, for a total of 346 variant cases, according to data from the DOH.

In Hawaii County, 10 cases of the California variant and five of the U.K. variant have been identified.

Desmond said a new strain found in India has two mutations of concern, E484Q — which is similar to the E484K mutation — and L452R, both of which are associated with reduced effectiveness of antibodies.

“So, the concern is this double mutant, with two mutations that cause antibodies to be less effective, it might be less responsive to the antibodies that result from vaccination or infection,” he said. “We don’t know yet. This strain is brand new and hasn’t been studied. But I guess the ominous news is shortly after it was reported in India, it was also reported in California. I guess we have seen that what happens in California comes fairly quickly here.”

Desmond said the newly identified strain is something the state will monitor, but health officials aren’t “worrying ourselves seriously about it yet.”

The state lab regularly performs whole genome sequencing on specimens collected from the community to detect and identify variants, he said, “and we are definitely looking for this one to see if it comes here.”

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“And, we’re going to watch to see if any laboratory elsewhere in the world has the ability to assess the effect of this double mutant strain to see if it indeed is more ominous than the ones we know about now.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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