Has a fast-spreading variant of the coronavirus been spreading in Idaho? The state is looking for it, but won’t know whether it’s here until late January or early February.
The Idaho Bureau of Laboratories has been working with labs in Idaho to screen COVID-19 samples for signs of the variant, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare told the Statesman on Friday.
“These laboratories have looked back through all their data from December and have collectively identified five samples that have been sent out for sequencing,” department spokesperson Niki Forbing-Orr said in an email.
Idaho currently has no labs that can do genomic sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 disease. Few samples from Idaho COVID-19 tests have been sequenced and submitted to a global database in the past year. Sequencing can help determine the origin and spread of the coronavirus, and to monitor the virus for mutations.
Scientists believe a mutation in the “B1.1.7 variant,” identified in the United Kingdom in December, allows the virus to spread more quickly than earlier versions of the coronavirus, which already was more easily transmitted than influenza and other viruses.
“It is important to note that the only way to determine if the B1.1.7 variant is in Idaho is by sequencing,” Forbing-Orr wrote.
The department expects to have results from sequencing “within the next couple of weeks,” and will announce if the variant is found, she wrote.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report on Friday that detailed how the “more highly transmiissible” variant could spread quickly in the U.S.
“The modeled trajectory of this variant in the U.S. exhibits rapid growth in early 2021, becoming the predominant variant in March,” the report said.
The variant has been detected 88 times in 14 states, as of Friday. There have been five cases found in Colorado, one in Utah and 40 in California, according to CDC data. Oregon announced Friday it also has identified one case of a person infected with the variant.
The CDC report said that “multiple lines of evidence” indicate that the variant spreads more easily. The report authors built a model that assumes the UK variant spreads 50% more than the version of the virus circulating in the U.S. last year.
“Taking measures to reduce transmission now can lessen the potential impact of B.1.1.7 and allow critical time to increase vaccination coverage,” the report said. “Collectively, enhanced (virus sequencing) combined with continued compliance with effective public health measures, including vaccination, physical distancing, use of masks, hand hygiene, and isolation and quarantine, will be essential to limiting the spread ...”
In addition to the UK variant, researchers are watching other, potentially more infectious, variants discovered in South Africa and Japan.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 9:07 a.m. Jan. 18 to include Oregon’s findings of the variant.