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Highly Transmissible COVID Variant Found in HI

By Catherine Cluett Pactol

Molokai has done no new reported positive COVID-19 cases since the first week of January, and statewide, the average daily number of cases has dropped slightly to 85. However, the presence of new COVID-19 variants in Hawaii is causing officials concern.

One variant, L452R, has been confirmed in nine samples. Four samples have been found “that exhibit a molecular clue associated with the UK B1.1.7,” with two confirmed cases of the B.1.1.7 variant and the other three samples awaiting results, as of Saturday.

The B.1.1.7 variant, originally detected in the United Kingdom, is highly transmissible and leads to a more rapid spread than other common COVID-19 strains. It had not previously been detected in Hawaii.

The B.1.1.7 variant strain was confirmed in two Oahu residents, neither with a history of travel, and the two individuals are not known to have had contact with one another. One close contact of the first confirmed B.1.1.7 variant carrier also tested positive for the COVID-19. Whole genomic sequencing is being performed on the specimen from the close contact to determine if B.1.1.7 is present.

The State Laboratories Division is performing genome sequencing on 300 specimens per month.

“The specimens selected for sequencing represent patients more likely to have variant strains, as well as specimens representing all parts of the state,” said State Laboratories Division Director Dr. Edward Desmond. “The sequencing will indicate the presence of variant strains with any of the mutations of concern.”

Officials are urging residents to continue to wear masks, practice social distancing, wash hands frequently and state home when sick.

“We are concerned about the presence of the B.1.1.7 variant in Hawaii because more contagious strains can lead to an increase in case rates and ultimately require a higher percentage of people to get vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity,” said Health Director Dr. Elizabeth Char.

Of the nine L452R variants identified so far, one was from Maui, one from Kauai, and seven were from Oahu. Four individuals carrying the L452R variant had a history of travel to or from the U.S. mainland, including two returning residents. Investigation is ongoing into one Maui case and four Oahu cases that had no history of travel.

The L452R mutation is considered “under investigation” by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It has not been proven so far to be associated with increased transmissibility of COVID-19, and it is not associated with vaccine failure or decreased effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines.

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