UK COVID-19 variant identified in Alabama
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - A more highly transmissible COVID-19 variant first discovered in the United Kingdom has now been confirmed in eight Alabamians, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.
ADPH said the eight cases have been identified in Autauga, Jefferson, Madison, Mobile and Montgomery counties. The exact number of cases identified in each individual county is not known at this time. So far, one Jefferson County man with the UK variant has died.
ADPH said only a couple of the cases had out-of-state travel prior to illness onset which indicates this variant strain is already circulating in Alabama.
“I think it’s concerning that they (UK variant cases) actually came from our four largest metro areas, so the Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Mobile areas,” said State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris.
Harris said because only certain specialized laboratories in Alabama are testing for variants, “it’s very likely we have a lot more of it than we know about.”
Thousands of variants of the coronavirus have been identified up to this point, but according to doctors, the variants found in the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil are proving to be more contagious than what’s been spreading over the past year.
So far, the U.K. variant is the only one of the three strains that has been detected in Alabama.
Harris said whether or not the U.K. strain is more deadly is still unknown, but it is more contagious, and that could mean more deaths if it becomes the dominant strain.
“If you have a person with a variant who is more likely to give it to other people, and since we know one or two percent of people who get it are going to die, it does absolutely result in more deaths,” Harris said. “Even though each individual person may not be any more likely to get ill, the more people you give it to, there will be a certain percentage that end up in the hospital and a certain percentage that don’t survive.”
There is also growing concern that current COVID-19 vaccines will not protect against the new variants.
“Eventually we are going to see strains that this vaccine is not going to protect against nearly as well,” Harris said.
“There is going to be some virus out there that are just naturally more immune to the vaccine itself, they are a little more likely to be countered by the vaccine, and so that is going to be the virus that predominates, that is going to be the one that is left, and so that’s going to be the one that spreads,” Harris said. “As we get more and more people vaccinated, and yet we still have these strains of virus going around, we are going to eventually have a problem, we are only going to have the virus circling that the vaccines are not going to be able to prevent.”
The good news is right now, the current vaccines are proving to be effective against the U.K. variant. But, there is now a race to get as many people vaccinated as possible before the more contagious variant takes hold.
“We are in a little bit of a race here,” Harris said. “We need to get a lot more people vaccinated so that they can’t get it.”
Some more good news is that both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech can quickly reprogram their current vaccines to target new variants, thanks to their unique mRNA technology.
Moderna announced that they are currently tweaking their vaccine to make it more effective against emerging variants. The upgrades will be designed to better protect against the different strains and could be used as a booster shot.
Moderna said its existing vaccine is effective against the U.K. variant, but the vaccine was less protective against the strain first reported in South Africa.
Research also suggests that Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine can protect against both the UK and South African variant.
As of Wednesday, 42 states have reported cases of the (B.1.1.7) U.K. Variant. Statewide, more than 663,000 people have received at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
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