The Harris County Public Health has confirmed the first case of the COVID19 variant B.1.1.7, the same variant discovered in the UK. This the first known case in Harris County and the State of Texas.
The patient has been identified as a man between ages 30 and 40 in southwest Harris County.
His condition is described as stable, and the man is quarantining in isolation. Authorities say he has no travel history and are reaching out to anyone the man has come into contact with.
"The fact that this person had no travel history suggests this variant is already circulating in Texas," said Dr. John Hellerstedt, DSHS commissioner. "Genetic variations are the norm among viruses, and it's not surprising that it arrived here given how rapidly it spreads. This should make us all redouble our commitment to the infection prevention practices that we know work: masks any time you're around people you don't live with, social distancing, and personal and environmental hygiene."
The variant is considered more easily transmitted, but is not thought to be more severe than previous strains.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo will address the new case during her afternoon press conference, scheduled for 2:15 p.m. Thursday, December 7.
Health experts in the U.K. and U.S. said the variant seems to infect more easily than others, but there is no evidence yet it is more deadly.
Patrick Vallance, the British government's chief scientific adviser, said that the strain "moves fast and is becoming the dominant variant," causing over 60% of infections in London by December.
The variant is also concerning because it has so many mutations — nearly two dozen — and some are on the spiky protein that the virus uses to attach to and infect cells. That spike is what current vaccines target.
"I'm worried about this, for sure," but it's too soon to know how important it ultimately will prove to be, said Dr. Ravi Gupta, who studies viruses at the University of Cambridge in England. He and other researchers posted a report of it on a website scientists use to quickly share developments, but the paper has not been formally reviewed or published in a journal.
Viruses often acquire small changes of a letter or two in their genetic alphabet through normal evolution. A slightly modified strain can become the most common one in a country or region just because that's the strain that first took hold there or because "super spreader" events helped it become entrenched.
A bigger worry is when a virus mutates by changing the proteins on its surface to help it escape from drugs or the immune system.
"Emerging evidence" suggests that may be starting to happen with the new coronavirus, Trevor Bedford, a biologist and genetics expert at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, wrote on Twitter. "We've now seen the emergence and spread of several variants" that suggest this, and some show resistance to antibody treatments, he noted.
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