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January 15, 2021

U.K. COVID-19 variant detected in Philly woman, health officials say

Genetic sequencing confirms sample of mutant virus thought to be more contagious

Illness Coronavirus
Philly UK Variant COVID-19 Julie Sebadelha/Abaca/Sipa USA

Labs around the world are collecting samples to test genetic sequencing for the presence of the U.K. variant of COVID-19, which may be more contagious than the dominant form of the coronavirus.

A coronavirus variant believed to be more infectious has been detected in a Southeastern Pennsylvania woman who splits her residence between Philadelphia and Bucks County. 

The B.1.1.7 mutation, first detected in the United Kingdom, has spread to dozens of countries and several states since it was discovered last last year. Though some research suggests it can be 50% more contagious than previous forms of the virus, it is not thought to be more deadly or resistant to COVID-19 vaccines.

Pennsylvania's first case of the variant was found in Dauphin County last week. Lab results this week confirmed another case investigated by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and the Bucks County Health Department. 

The lab sample was sent to Penn Medicine for genetic sequencing, health officials said. The sample contained 22 of the 23 diagnostic substitutions characteristic of the U.K. strain, including all of the substitutions in the spike protein hypothesized to make the variant more infectious.

The woman, who is in her 50s, began experiencing symptoms during the last week of December. The health departments have been conducting contact tracing to identify, inform and monitor anyone who was in close contact with the woman.

"While it is still not proven that the B.1.1.7 variant is more transmissible than other variants of the COVID-19 coronavirus, we are concerned that it is present in Philadelphia," Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said. "Everyone in the area should take this information as a reminder to be even more consistent in wearing masks and keeping distance from others."

"We are not overly concerned about this development because all available evidence shows that the existing vaccines are effective against this variant," added Bucks County Health Department Director Dr. David Damsker. "So long as that continues to be the case, we will treat this variant the same as our other cases."

A sharp rise in COVID-19 cases in the U.K. over the last month has been attributed to the variant, whose presence in the United States is difficult to gauge because it requires extensive genetic sequencing of samples that cannot keep up with the increase in overall cases.

"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," Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said.

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