Report: ‘Variants of concern’ now make up majority of COVID cases in state

  • KEMBLE

  • DESMOND

COVID-19 variants now account for a majority of virus cases in Hawaii, according to a new report released Wednesday by the state Department of Health.

“Variants of concern now make up more than 90% of the genomes sequenced by our lab,” said State Laboratories Division Director Dr. Edward Desmond in a news release. “We detected our first variants in January, and in just four months they have replaced the original COVID-19 lineages as the COVID we find most often.”

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According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a variant of concern is a strain of the virus for which there is evidence of increased transmissibility, more severe disease or reduced effectiveness of antibodies.

A variant of interest has specific genetic markers associated with reduced efficacy of treatments and effectiveness of antibodies, increased transmission or severity of disease.

According to the DOH, the B.1.429 variant, first found in California, was the dominant strain in Hawaii in March and early April.

It has been detected 631 times.

However, the B.1.1.7 variant, first found in the United Kingdom, replaced the California variant as the most dominant COVID strain in the state in late April.

The U.K. strain now accounts for at least 61% of variants circulating in the islands and has been detected 304 times.

Both variants are more transmissible strains of the novel coronavirus.

The state lab also found a growing presence of the P.1 variant, which was first detected in Brazil, the DOH said.

The strain — which is highly infectious and might be more resistant to antibodies — has been found in 36 specimens in Hawaii, including 22 on Maui and 13 on Oahu, the DOH said.

Desmond said during a Zoom call with reporters Wednesday afternoon that the state lab performs whole genome sequencing on about 75 specimens per week.

In January, most of the coronavirus in Hawaii strains weren’t variants of interest or concern, he said.

“That pattern has changed over the ensuing months, so that now in the most recent data … we see that 98% or so of the Sars-Cov-2 in the state is variants of concern and variants of interest,” Desmond said. “… We’re very happy that our case numbers are going down, but the presence of the variants in our state suggests we should be very attentive to getting as many people as possible vaccinated as soon as possible.”

That’s the “take home point” for acting state Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble.

The emerging variants are concerning because they have the tendency to spread more quickly, which can make them harder to contain, and some can also have more severe outcomes, she said.

“On the other hand, the good news is that the variants that we’re seeing, we’re still seeing more and more data come out week by week that the vaccines available do work against these variants,” Kemble said. “So the real take-home message is still vaccination is a great way to prevent COVID-19 in general but also these variant strains.”

According to the report, the state has conducted genome sequencing on approximately 6% of positive samples detected since testing began, but ramped up sequencing efforts in February to detect new variants early.

Since then, between 15% and 20% of samples that tested positive for COVID-19 have been sequenced.

Since Jan. 1, the state lab has sequenced 1,428 viral genomes — 743 in the City and County of Honolulu, 307 in Maui County, 123 in Hawaii County and 35 in Kauai County, the report states.

The state laboratory has detected 1,023 specimens with variants of concern since the first was detected in Hawaii on Jan. 21, the DOH said.

In Hawaii County, three variants of concern have been found.

Of those, 29 cases of both the U.K. and California B.1.429 variant were found, along with two cases of the California B.1.427 strain.

Additionally, six cases of the B.1.526 and two cases of the B.1.526.1 strains were found in Big Island samples that were sequenced.

Both variants originated in New York and are considered variants of interest.

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Desmond said a variant from India, B1617, has not been found in Hawaii.

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

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