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January 07, 2021

Pennsylvania confirms first case of U.K. coronavirus variant

The mutated virus has spread to at least six U.S. states, but detecting its presence poses challenges

Illness COVID-19
Pennsylvania COVID-19 variant Governor Tom Wolf/Flickr

A Dauphin County resident who tested positive for the new COVID-19 variant had a known international exposure to the coronavirus, Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine says.

A Dauphin County resident has tested positive for the new COVID-19 variant, marking Pennsylvania's first known case of the mutated coronavirus. 

The variant, B.1.1.7., is considered more contagious, but does not appear to be more deadly. It has spread to dozens of countries and at least five other U.S. states since it was first discovered in the United Kingdom. 

The Pennsylvania resident tested positive after a known international exposure, the Department of Health announced Thursday. The person had mild symptoms that subsided while self-isolating at home. 

Contact tracing was performed to identify anyone who came into close contact with the person, Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said.

"Pennsylvania has been preparing for this variant by working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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," Levine said in a statement. "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 U.S. case of the new variant was confirmed last week in Colorado, but scientists believe the mutated virus has been spreading here for weeks. 

Tracking its spread — and prevalence — could prove challenging. 

Regular COVID-19 tests cannot differentiate the variant from other forms of the coronavirus. Genome sequencing is necessary to do that, but the U.S. does not have a large-scale system in place. 

About 1.4 million people are testing positive for the coronavirus each week, but genome sequencing is being conducted on less than 3,000 weekly samples, the New York Times reported. Experts say at least five times as many samples need to be sequenced to better understand the variant. 

"There is still much to learn about this new variant, so we need to remain vigilant and continue to urge Pennsylvanians to stop the spread by washing their hands, practicing social distancing, avoiding gatherings, downloading COVID Alert PA and answering the call," Levine said.

Virus mutation is common, and there have been multiple variants since COVID-19 first appeared in China in late 2019. The U.K. variant appears to have almost 24 mutations, some of which are on the spike protein that the virus uses to infect cells.

Studies are ongoing to better understand the new coronavirus variant's lethality and how it will impact vaccination efforts. But scientists believe the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will remain effective. 

The CDC has mandated all U.K. travelers provide proof of a negative coronavirus test within 72 hours of their flight's departure.

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