Alaska reports first case of rare COVID-19 variant that could evade antibodies

a person pipettes something into a tray
Will George, a graduate student at the University of Alaska Anchorage, is part of a team of scientists led by professor Eric Bortz, studying Covid-19 variants. (Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media)

The first case of a highly transmissible variant of the COVID-19 virus has been detected in Alaska. 

Alaska is only the fifth state to have a confirmed case of the P.1 variant, which likely originated in Brazil, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

State officials said the case was first discovered on Tuesday in a specimen collected from an Anchorage resident who developed COVID-19 symptoms earlier this month. They had no travel history, suggesting that the case was a result of community spread. 

Alaska’s Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said by email the patient reported eating a meal unmasked with another person four days before reporting symptoms. 

“It is possible that this may have been where the patient was exposed,” he wrote. 

At least one close contact has also tested positive for COVID-19, but their sample hasn’t yet been analyzed for the new variant. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say there is evidence some of the mutations in the P.1 variant might make it more transmissible and harder for antibodies to recognize. That means vaccination or natural immunity after recovering from COVID-19 may be less effective in protecting against it. In the Brazilian city of Manaus, it may account for a resurgence of cases since mid-December, according to CDC. 

The state also reported a second case of the B.1.1.7 variant, another more contagious variant that originated in Britain. McLaughlin said the case was also in an Anchorage resident who didn’t have any symptoms. They were tested at the airport after traveling to the Lower 48. It’s the second case reported in the state after a positive was confirmed from a December sample.

McLaughlin said the news underscores the need to continue masking and distancing, and getting vaccinated as soon as possible if eligible.

“The more people we get vaccinated, the quicker we will be able to prevent ongoing transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in Alaska,” he wrote. 

This story has been updated with new information about the B.1.1.7 case.