They are like the sentinels of the coronavirus pandemic, standing watch with eyes fixed on the horizon, searching for invaders.
These infectious disease guardians — scientists at the Michigan Bureau of Laboratories who do whole genome sequencing of COVID-19 test samples — clanged the warning bells on Saturday.
They alerted state health officials and the public that a new, more transmissible variant of SARS-CoV-2 was detected in a test sample from Washtenaw County.
Called B.1.1.7 or the United Kingdom variant because that’s where it was first identified in September, health officials are concerned about what its arrival in Michigan could mean for case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths.
Although this strain of the virus is not more deadly and isn’t known to make people more severely ill than other previously identified strains, B.1.1.7 spreads more easily.
“It appears to be about 50% more transmissible, or able to spread 50% faster,” said Dr. Adam Lauring, an associate professor of infectious diseases and microbiology at the University of Michigan. “One way to think about it is if one person generally infects two other people on average with coronavirus, with the B.1.1.7 variant, that one person might infect three other people on average. And so, scaled up, that can lead to much faster growth of the virus.
“What I always come back to is this: If it spreads faster, that means that there’s going to be more people who are going to get infected and that means that there’s going to be more people who are going to get sick and be hospitalized. And that could mean that there’d be more people who die.
“So even though it’s not really lethal on an individual level, it spreads faster. It’s going to cause more infections and more serious illness and more deaths, so I think that’s the concerning thing,” said Lauring, whose work in whole genome sequencing at U-M accounts for about 2.5% of the total coronavirus surveillance in the nation.
Two new cases have been identified among the woman’s close contacts, though it still isn’t clear whether they have the same strain. It takes a minimum of five days to fully sequence a COVID-19 test sample to identify the particular strain, said Heather Blankenship, the bioinformatics and sequencing section manager at the state laboratories.
“A lot of times, that is gonna take up to a week because of holidays and weekends and other testing that is going on for diagnostics,” Blankenship said.
The Washtenaw County woman and her close contacts are now all in quarantine, state health officials say.
This article originally appeared in the Detroit Free Press, read more here.