At least 65 Americans are now infected with ‘super-covid,’ according to a DailyMail.com tally.
Indiana on Monday became the ninth state in the US to find a case of the more infectious B117 variant first identified in the UK, where it set off a new wave of national lockdowns.
The state’s health department simply announced the identification of the variant through testing, and did not reveal any details about the person who has variant, if others might have it or where within the state the case was found.
Indiana joins Colorado, California, Florida, New York, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Texas, each of which already has at least one case of the new variant.
Its case comes amid sharp criticism that the US is not doing enough to detect, track and prevent the spread of new more contagious variants of coronavirus.
At least 65 people in the US have more infectious ‘super-covid’ variant first found in the UK with the addition of at least one person in Indiana, announced on Monday
Regular testing can’t detect a new coronavirus variant; the viral genome of a positive sample has to be sequenced, which is a more time-consuming process.
But the US is moving much more slowly to do this compared to many other countries.
American labs submit fewer than three genome sequences for every 1,000 cases confirmed in the US – and an average of 85 days pass between the sample being taken from a covid-19 positive person and its sequence being submitted to the international database, known as GISAID.
‘It’s pathetic,’ Baylor College of Medicine virologist Dr Peter Hotez told CNN.
‘By the time you wait  days, a sequence can go from being a rare variant to being half of the circulating virus in a population.’
The CDC is apparently stepping up the number of viral genomes it sequences from about 3,500 in December to more than 6,000 this month.
No details about the first Indiana infected with the new variant has been released, but the presence of one person with the more infectious variant suggests more will emerge there
But it still lags well behind other nations.
The UK, for example, submits the genome sequences of 45 out of every 1,000 samples that are positive for coronavirus – three times the rate that the US submit, and its turnaround time is 24 days.
Another type of diagnostic test that happens to detect a broad mutation seen in the B117 variant isn’t enough to confirm with 100 percent certainty that a sample is the new variant, but it is used as surveillance system in the UK.
States like Colorado and California – the first two in the nation to report cases of the B117 strain – are catching on, using the same kind of test to do monitoring.
That’s perhaps helped California to find more cases than any other state in the nation.
California now has at least 34 case of the newer variant, of which 32 are part of a ‘cluster’ in San Diego.
Colorado has confirmed two National Guard members who worked in the same nursing home have the UK variant.
Florida has only announced one case, but the CDC’s tracker shows that 22 cases of B117 have been found there.
One case was detected each in New York and Georgia last week.
On Thursday, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Texas each reported their first cases, with two cases in Connecticut.
As soon as the UK variant emerged there, US experts assumed it was already in America due to the close economic and travel ties between the two countries.
Travelers from the UK are now only supposed to enter the US if they have an exemption as well as a negative COVID-19 test, but that’s not proved enough to keep cases from surging upward here.
Federal authorities in the US have done little to step up efforts to monitor and stem outbreaks of the new variant, which has caused a surge of infections in the UK and sent the nation into its strictest set of lockdowns yet.
And so far, there are no travel bans affecting people coming South Africa or Brazil where other variants have been reported.
In addition to regular testing for residents (pictured), Philadelphia health chief asked that anyone who has recently traveled to the UK to come in for COVID-19 testing so the city can sequence the genomes of anyone who test positive to see if if they have the new variant (file)
CDC last week recruited diagnostic giant LabCorp to help bolster its efforts to ramp up viral genome sequencing.
State labs and universities are also stepping up their own variant detection systems to fill the considerable gaps left by national labs.
‘Pennsylvania has been preparing for this variant by working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and has been sending 10-35 random samples biweekly to the CDC since November to study sequencing and detect any potential cases for this new COVID-19 variant,’ Dr Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s health commissioner said week after the state detected its first case.
‘Public health experts are in the early stages of working to better understand this new variant, how it spreads and how it affects people who are infected with it.
The first US person found to have the new UK variant had no recent history of travel, suggesting it was already spreading silently here.
Other cases have been mixed bag: The person in Pennsylvania had recently traveled, as had both people in Connecticut – but most of those in California had not.
So far, the B117 variant does not appear to make people any sicker or more at-risk of dying from COVID-19.
But it is more infectious, and that alone could be disastrous in the US, where nearly 250,000 new cases are already be reported a day, and more than 3,000 people are dying on an average day.
After widespread concern that the variants found in the UK, South Africa or Brazil might be able to evade COVID-19 vaccines, early evidence suggests that at least Pfizer’s vaccine still generates antibodies that are effective against at least the UK and South African forms.
Sixteen flights from London Heathrow airport arrived at JFK International Airport in New York City a day, prior to new restrictions that saw airlines cut down their number of flights between the cities.
Now, the US only allows travelers from the UK to enter if they have an exception and provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test.
Some experts have complained that’s not enough, calling for a full ban on travelers coming from the UK, where the B117 variant is becoming dominant.
Like much of the country, Pennsylvania has seen new infections rise again following the holidays.
Yesterday, the state reported more than 8,500 new cases. Nearly 700,000 confirmed or suspected cases have been reported in Pennsylvania and 17,179 people have died.
Concerned that there could be people who went to the UK and returned prior to the testing restriction in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr Thomas Farley said Wednesday that the local labs would start testing recent travelers for COVID-19.
‘In the United Kingdom they’re seeing an explosive growth in cases across the nation, and the models suggest that B117 is the reason,’ Farley said.
‘I do think it will be identified eventually.’
Sure enough, a case was found a day later. It’s unclear if it was a result of the Philadelphia testing program. Dauphin County is about 100 miles from Philadelphia.
Farley’s ask for people with travel history to get tested by Philadelphia labs was strategic.
The effort employed labs run by the University of Pennsylvania, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and CDC, which are capable of doing the complex process required to determine if someone has a particular variant of coronavirus.
Farley admitted that this process – sequencing the genome of virus found in samples of mucus to see if they have mutations that mark the new variant – is tedious and comprehensive monitoring will be a challenge – but one Philadelphia intends to rise to.
‘They are getting samples from people who have already been tested in the city to do that sequencing,’ he said of the sophisticated labs.
‘It’s not something you can do in very very large volumes, so it’ll be a small number of people. Which is why I put out the call for people who have recently traveled to the United Kingdom, so we’d be more likely to find it….It’s going to be difficult for us to do enough testing to get a sense of how much of this variant might be out here, and that’s a national issue not just for Philadelphia.’
CDC SAYS DETECTING THE MORE INFECTIOUS VARIANT IS NOT ‘URGENT’ DESPITE IT TRIGGERING LOCKDOWNS IN THE UK
At the national level, however, that problem is not being seen as ‘urgent’ a CDC official told DailyMail.com.
The CDC is stepping up the number of samples it sequences in search of the new variant, but it does its sequencing in large batches, which can be more time consuming. States have reported waiting up to two weeks to get results back from the samples they submitted to the agency, according to New York state health officials.
‘For less urgent sequencing, when there isn’t an urgent need to get the data turned around quickly, it’s much more efficient to batch them when it’s [for the purpose of] large surveillance data,’ Dr Dr Greg Armstrong, director of the CDC’s Office of Advanced Molecular Detection, told DailyMail.com when asked why it takes the CDC up to two weeks to tell states whether samples contain the new variant.
‘We assumed it was already here in the US, given how strong the economic ties are between here and the UK, so we figured we’d be able to find it relatively quickly. We’re aware of it now in seven different states and anticipate finding it in a lot of different places.’
At the time that he told DailyMail.com the variant was in seven states, only five had announced the presence of B117. Pennsylvania is the sixth, leaving one state that has confirmed a case to the CDC but not to the public.
Dr Armstrong refused to reveal the identity of the remaining states during an interview.
He said that CDC expects to hear the variant is in even more states in the coming weeks, but that that doesn’t change anything.
‘There are no clinical implications for these patients, and a variant with this low presence is not going to impact what non-pharmacological interventions [that we employ],’ he said.
‘The CDC’s attitude is ‘wrong and dangerous’ Peter Pitts, co-founder of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, told DailyMail.com.
‘It’s very alarming,’ he said.
‘The reality is that new strains of of COVID-19 need to be at the top of the epidemiological priority list.’
The new B117 variant has sent the UK into another lockdown and become dominant in much of the country where it was first announced just a little over three weeks ago.
If it takes hold in the US, it could be disastrous. Vaccine rollout is going slowly, hospitals in many states and cities are already overwhelmed by coronavirus patients, and the US has just set another record for deaths in a single day with nearly 4,000 fatalities reported Wednesday.