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News5 Deep Dive: COVID-19 Variant

COVID-19 testing
Posted at 11:12 AM, Jan 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-13 18:49:31-05

COLORADO — As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact day-to-day life; a new variant discovered in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and now the United States is raising concern.

The Basics

  • There are four cases of the "B-117" variant in Colorado, and about 70 cases nationwide
  • Colorado cases have been reported in Elbert county and metro area counties
  • The variant is considered more contagious than the original

The B.1.1.7 strain was first discovered in the United Kingdom in late 2020. While the strain is not thought to be deadlier than other forms of COVID-19, the strain is known to spread more rapidly and more easily than the original strain of the virus.

When it comes to doing anything differently during the pandemic, public health experts say to continue with wearing masks, social distancing, and other basic public health precautions. Whether or not you have the variant is something likely to be detected in a test you would get for the original virus strain.

Testing for the Variant

  • There are more than 100 different types of COVID-19 tests on the market
  • Colorado's state lab tests for three parts of the virus genome which allowed the state to detect the new variant
  • If you get a negative test result, you're likely in the clear for the new variant but pay close attention if you have symptoms or a known exposure

"If you're getting a COVID test the most important [question] is, does someone yes/no have COVID? and so that is the result that is turned around right away," Emily Travanty Scientific Dir. for the Colorado Public Health Laboratory said.

The state's lab is the only lab in the state regularly testing for the variant in Colorado. Travanty says some university labs are also testing for the sequence but data hasn't been passed on yet.

One reason Travanty says the state caught the new variant before any other state in the country- the type of COVID-19 test run at the lab.

The test looks at three parts of the COVID-19 makeup: the N, the ORF1ab, and the spike or S.

The key to testing for this new variant- is the spike or the S signal. Scientists look to see if there is a drop out of the S signal and if the other two are present, it's an indicator the variant is present.

"We look for a signal for all three of those in every patient sample that comes through the lab and because that's the test that we're running, it's a little bit of luck that we happen to be running a test that looks for all three of those because it gives us a screen to use on every sample that we test on if it might be the variant," Travanty said.

As of right now, Travanty notes most tests will pick up the variant.

"There are a handful that we've seen that we need to look at with caution so if someone has symptoms and they come up negative we want to look at exactly which test was run and make sure that there isn't any indication there could be a problem," Travanty said.

"If you get a negative result and you don't have any exposure history and you don't have any symptoms, then you can feel confident in that negative result," Travanty said.

B-117 & the Vaccine

  • The short answer: yes, both vaccine candidates currently authorized are expected to protect against the B-117 variant

One of the biggest questions surrounding the COVID-19 variant is whether or not the vaccines being distributed will protect against it.

"These vaccines [Pfizer and Moderna], both of these are mRNA vaccines that are directed at the spike but they're directed against the entire spike we're talking about specific mutations within the spike," Travanty said.

As of now, because of the technology of the vaccine and what's known about the variant- there's confidence in the data showing the vaccine will be effective against it.

What else?

Something of note when it comes to viruses- variants are typical.

"This may not be the only variant that we talk about," Travanty said, "there's always the chance that as this spreads among people we may see more variants arise some may be more transmissible some may be less."

As countries work through the pandemic, scientists and doctors will learn more about the spread of the variant. As of now, the virus is not believed to be widespread in Colorado.

The best prevention efforts are to continue with other public health guidelines set with the virus.