The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) announced yesterday that the first cases of the SARS-CoV-2 variant B.1.1.7 have been identified in samples from three adult residents of Southwest Virginia who had no history of travel during their exposure periods. VDH investigated all three cases and their close contacts and managed them appropriately. The B.1.1.7 variant, which first emerged in the United Kingdom in late 2020, is associated with increased person-to-person transmission of COVID-19. Preliminary reports from experts in the United Kingdom indicate that this variant causes more severe illness than other variants, but more studies are needed to confirm this finding. To date, the B.1.1.7 variant has been identified in 44 other U.S. states or jurisdictions.
The Department of General Services Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services (DCLS) confirmed the case using next-generation sequencing that provides a genetic blueprint of the virus that causes COVID-19. With the identification of these cases in the Southwest Region, Virginia has now identified a total of 20 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant and 3 cases of the B.1.351 variant (first identified in South Africa). With the combined state and national surveillance efforts, it is likely that additional cases with SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern will be identified.
Viruses change all the time, and VDH expects to see new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus as disease spreads. As our public health officials closely monitor the emergence of these SARS-CoV-2 variants in our Commonwealth, it is critical that all Virginians comply now with mitigation measures. We are in a race to stop the spread of these new variants. The more people that become infected, the greater that chance the virus will mutate and a variant will arise that could undermine the current vaccination efforts. Public health recommendations for stopping the spread of COVID-19 will work for all COVID-19 variants. This means wearing masks correctly, staying at least six feet from others, avoiding crowds, washing hands often, getting vaccinated for COVID-19 when it is your turn, and staying home if you are infected with COVID-19 or if you have had close contact with someone with COVID-19.
As of February 25, 2021, approximately 1.93 million Virginians have joined the fight against COVID-19 using their mobile devices. This includes 1,010,029 downloads of COVIDWISE – the nation’s first app using the Google/Apple framework and the second most downloaded exposure notifications app in the United States. An estimated 921,935 additional iPhone users have also turned on COVIDWISE Express, which is a secondary exposure notifications option specifically for iPhone users.
DCLS began sequencing positive COVID-19 samples in March 2020, becoming one of the first public health labs in the nation to use this technology to examine the genetic makeup of the virus and track how it is changing and being transmitted in the Commonwealth. DCLS is working with other labs in Virginia to solicit additional positive samples to sequence so public health officials can get a representation of variants circulating throughout Virginia.
For more information about COVID-19 variants, visit the VDH COVID-19 Testing website and the CDC New COVID-19 Variants website. For more information on DCLS and its use of next-generation sequencing, visit dgs.virginia.gov/dcls.