First case of Brazilian COVID-19 variant found in Wisconsin

NOW: First case of Brazilian COVID-19 variant found in Wisconsin

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) and laboratory partners confirmed on March 25, a third variant strain of COVID-19. 

According to a news release from DHS, this variant strain, referred to as P.1, differs from variant B.1.1.7 and B.1.351, which have both previously been confirmed in Wisconsin.

UW Health Director of Infection Control Dr. Nasia Sadfar said the discovery is concerning, but it was also expected.

“I think it confirms what people have suspected, that the variants have been circulating here for some time,” Sadfar said.

The newest variant, P.1, was first discovered in four travelers from Brazil who were tested at an airport near Tokyo, Japan in early January. According to epidemiologic and modeling studies, researchers have found that this new strain, similar to B.1.1.7 and B.1.351, spreads more rapidly and easily than the original strain of SARS-CoV-2. However, this variant has unique mutations that may affect the ability of antibodies, generated through previous COVID-19 infection or through vaccination, to recognize and fight off the virus. This means variant P.1 may be able to more easily infect people.

The Brazilian variant is listed as a "variant of concern" on the CDC website.

“The variants of concern are of concern because there is suspicion that they might evade the vaccine based on the way the variation occurred and based on the way the vaccine works,” Sadfar said.

In Wisconsin, strain P.1 was confirmed through ongoing surveillance and whole genome sequencing, a routine practice since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. All viruses, including the virus that causes COVID-19, change through mutation. We can expect additional new variants of the virus to occur over time.

"DHS continues to monitor for new SARS-CoV-2 variants in collaboration with our laboratory partners,” said Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ryan Westergaard. “Because these new variants of concern may spread more easily than the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, it is important to get vaccinated when you are able. Vaccines, along with our other public health practices, give the virus less of an opportunity to spread and mutate.”

DHS, the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene and other laboratory partners continue to work together to ensure whole genome sequencing is performed on a portion of positive tests and continue to ramp up this effort. To date, 78 cases of variant B.1.1.7 and two cases of variant B.1.351 have been confirmed in Wisconsin, in addition to one case of variant P.1. Molecular surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 has become increasingly important in order to quickly identify and understand characteristics of these new variants.

With emerging strains of SARS-CoV-2, it is essential to continue public health practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Vaccine is one of many important tools we have to stop the spread of COVID-19. Studies show that the current available vaccines do provide protection against variants, but this is being closely investigated. Continue to wear a mask when in public, physically distance from others, stay home whenever you are sick, wash your hands frequently and get vaccinated when you are eligible. If you feel sick, or are a close contact of someone with COVID-19, get tested.

Sadfar said she is hopeful the vaccine rollout will be enough to keep cases down, despite the increase in variants.

“They’re still likely to be effective," Sadfar said. And so, we’re starting out at 95-percent effective vaccines. Even if it goes to 80 or 70,  that’s still effective.”

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