For Immediate Release: February 11, 2021
Lab Results Indicate Likely Presence of COVID-19 Variant in the State
Tests of Burlington wastewater point to virus strain known as the “UK variant”
Burlington, VT – The City of Burlington’s testing of wastewater has detected the presence of two COVID-19 virus mutations that are associated with the B.1.1.7 variant, first detected in the United Kingdom. Detection of these two mutations is a strong indicator that the B.1.1.7 variant is present in the community.
Wastewater sampling is a pooled sample of many different community members, and only looks for the presence of two specific mutations, so this should not be considered definitive finding of that variant, but it does indicate the variant is most likely present in Vermont. The Health Department will work to confirm the presence of the variant through genetic sequencing of individual samples from COVID-19 positive individuals.
Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time. Many emerge and disappear, but others can persist and even become the predominant strain. Some experts anticipate the more easily transmissible B.1.1.7 variant will become widespread throughout the country. According to the CDC, studies so far show the current vaccines are largely effective against this variant. Nonetheless, health experts warn the faster spreading variants can lead to more cases of COVID-19, as well as increased hospitalizations and deaths.
Whole genome sequencing is a laboratory method already in use by the Department of Health to definitively detect all known COVID-19 variant strains. The department has been sending samples of select positive COVID-19 test specimens to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and to the Massachusetts Public Health Laboratory, Molecular Diagnostics and Virology program for genetic sequencing. The sequencing can detect all of the mutations present in the COVID-19 genome isolated from a single patient sample.
“This is a new stage of the pandemic here in Vermont,” said Health Commissioner Mark Levine, MD. “It is not, however, surprising. We expected that variants could be circulating in Vermont, and now that looks to be the case.” As of Monday, the B.1.1.7 variant has been reported in 34 states, including Connecticut, Massachusetts and in upstate New York.
Burlington’s wastewater testing program is an important surveillance tool that provides timely public health information by broadly monitoring for the presence of these specific mutations occurring in SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The City’s testing is performed by GT Molecular of Fort Collins, Colorado.
As a result of the City’s findings, the Health Department has added sampling in a wastewater catchment area where mutations have reliably been detected to its criteria for which specimens to submit for whole genome sequencing.
Health Commissioner Mark Levine, MD said medical experts are still learning more about the variant, but that we do know it is more highly transmissible. “This virus already moves quickly from person to person,” said Dr. Levine. “It is extremely important for everyone to take every step to help prevent getting and spreading the virus, even as our vaccination efforts continue – wear your mask, keep a distance of 6 feet from each other, and absolutely avoid crowded places.”
Dr. Levine also encouraged people to get tested. “Not everyone shows symptoms of the virus, and the only way to know if you have it is to be tested.”
For more information about new COVID-19 variants, visit cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/transmission/variant.html
Learn more about COVID-19 in Vermont and getting tested: healthvermont.gov/covid19
See how and when you can get vaccinated: healthvermont.gov/MyVaccine
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