Hawaii health officials this week announced the state’s first case of a concerning coronavirus variant that was first identified in South Africa late last year. The variant, B.1.351, was detected in an O‘ahu resident with no recent travel history, suggesting it was acquired locally.
“This is concerning because B.1.351 has a mutation that makes it more transmissible from one person to another, and a separate mutation that might make it less responsive to the antibodies we form when we have COVID or get vaccinated,” said the Department of Health State Laboratories Division (SLD) Director Dr. Edward Desmond, in a statement.
Experts have warned that the B.1.351 variant is indeed more transmissible and likely more virulent than the original strain of the coronavirus that’s behind the pandemic, meaning it is more likely to cause severe illness. It has also shown to diminish efficacy from vaccines, and nearly escape antibody treatments. Several drugmakers, including Moderna, are now working on variant booster shots in a bid for more protection against the variants.
“The mutation that increases transmissibility is called N501Y. The mutation that may reduce effectiveness of antibodies is called E484K. The N501Y and E484K mutations had previously been seen in Hawai‘i, but this is the first time both mutations have been found together in one virus,” officials explained in a news release.
Like other variant cases across the country, the B.1.351 case in Hawaii was detected via genomic sequencing, which health officials in Hawaii have done weekly on COVID samples from across the state in an effort to root out variants of concern.
In addition to the first case of the South African variant, health officials in The Aloha State also said that additional cases of another variant that was first detected in the United Kingdom were also identified.
“Two new cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, also known as the U.K. variant, also have also been found, for a total of eight B.1.1.7 variant cases detected in the state to date. This variant, first detected in Hawai‘i in early February, has the N501Y transmissibility mutation, but not the E484K mutation. The most recent cases of B.1.1.7 involve two O‘ahu residents, one who traveled to the mainland United States and a household contact of that individual,” per the release. “Investigation into cases of recently detected variants is ongoing. Close contacts have been quarantined.”
As more variant cases emerge, and in the continued fight against COVID-19 overall, health officials have urged the public to continue following mitigation measures, such as social distancing and wearing a face mask or covering while in public.
“Research shows community mitigation measures are effective in reducing the risk of transmission of even the most aggressive variants,” said State Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Char, in a statement. “This means wearing masks, maintaining physical distance and washing hands is more important than ever. The effectiveness of vaccines in preventing serious illness or death means we should get vaccinated as soon as it is our turn.”
The news comes after Colorado health officials over the weekend confirmed the state’s first cases of the South African variant at the Colorado Department of Corrections Buena Vista Correctional Complex. Two cases were among staff members and the other case was in an incarcerated individual.