Alaska officials detect case of coronavirus variant, first found in South Africa, that’s less affected by vaccines

Eric Bortz, an associate professor and virologist at University of Alaska Anchorage, draws a diagram at his lab Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. He’s part of a state-sponsored consortium of scientists that’s searching for new, more-contagious strains of COVID-19. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska health officials said Tuesday that they’ve detected the state’s first case of a coronavirus strain that was first detected in South Africa. The variant, known as B.1.351, spreads more easily and appears to be less affected by certain vaccines.

A single case of the B.1.351 variant was detected last month in the Anchorage-Mat-Su area, the state health department said in a new report on variants published Tuesday. The report did not include details about how the infected person acquired the virus or whether others may have been exposed.

Cases of new, mutant strains of the coronavirus are rising sharply in the U.S., and experts warn that they could prolong the pandemic because of their higher contagiousness and their potential to evade vaccines.

The B.1.351 strain contains a mutation that appears to make the vaccines produced by drug companies Johnson & Johnson, Novavax and Astrazeneca less effective against it. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines may be slightly less effective against B.1.351 as well.

The National Institutes of Health and Moderna have partnered to launch a new trial to test a vaccine booster shot against the B.1.351 variant. NIH scientist Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a prepared statement last month that the study is being done out of “an abundance of caution” and added that “preliminary data show that the COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the United States should provide an adequate degree of protection” against variants.

Tuesday’s report also said the state detected five new cases last month of a different, more-contagious variant first found in Britain, known as B.1.1.7. Two cases of B.1.1.7, which is more contagious and appears to cause more severe illness, had been announced previously.

The five new cases of the B.1.1.7 strain were found in the Anchorage-Mat-Su area and Southeast Alaska, the report said.

One other concerning variant that’s been detected in Alaska is the P.1 strain, which was first discovered in Brazil and has been blamed for a sharp increase in cases in South America. Alaska officials announced one new case of P.1 in the Anchorage-Mat-Su area in its Tuesday report, for a total of six, though they said the case was from February.

The new variant cases announced Tuesday do not represent a full picture of how the strains are spreading across the state because state scientists are testing a subset of samples.

This is a developing story — check back for updates.

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