Alaska announces four more cases of more-contagious coronavirus strain first seen in Brazil

A transmission electron micrograph of a particle of the B.1.1.7 strain of the coronavirus. That strain has been labeled by the CDC as a “variant of concern,” and so has the P.1 variant first found in Brazil that now appears to be spreading in Alaska. (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

Health officials say they’ve discovered more Alaska cases of the P.1 variant of the coronavirus that’s devastated Brazil — suggesting that the mutant strain, which is likely more contagious and capable of reinfecting people previously sick with COVID-19, is getting a growing foothold in the state.

State health officials announced the four new cases, two from Anchorage and two from Eagle River, during a public information session Wednesday.

They’d previously detected just one case of the P.1 variant. But they said last month that more were likely given that the person found to have the strain had not recently traveled outside the state and did not have a clear source of infection, making it a case of community spread.

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

Officials say they’re closely watching for P.1 cases because of its contagiousness and its apparent ability to escape antibodies acquired from previous COVID-19 infection. There’s also the possibility that it could evade vaccines, though the research into that risk is not conclusive.

As of Tuesday, just 15 cases of the P.1 variant had been reported in the entire country, spread across nine states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But experts say that those numbers are likely far below the true number of cases, given the country’s limited capacity to do the complicated laboratory work, known as sequencing, that’s required to detect individual strains.

In Alaska, at least, officials say that a newly-formed sequencing consortium of state and university scientists has given the state a good picture of which strains are circulating here, and make it unlikely that any variants are circulating widely while undetected.

Related: Scientists team up to make Alaska a leader in the hunt for new COVID-19 strains

Officials say vaccinations, which opened Tuesday to all Alaska adults, are the best tool to keep concerning variants from spreading more widely.

“The less COVID we have circulating, the less variants there are,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer, during the Wednesday information session.

Alaska had also previously recorded two cases of the more-contagious B.1.1.7 strain first detected in Great Britain, though no new infections were announced Wednesday.

The CDC, which declined an interview request, has also labeled the P.1 strain as “variant of concern,” citing the experience in Manaus, the Amazon region’s largest city, with two million people.

Even after being slammed by COVID-19 early in the pandemic, with an estimated three-fourths of its population infected, Manaus experienced a second surge of the virus late last year.

Researchers later found the P.1 strain has mutations that allow it to evade antibodies built up against other variants of the coronavirus, with as many as 60% of Manaus residents potentially reinfected, the New York Times reported. Researchers also found that the P.1 strain is between 1.4 to 2.2 times as contagious as other coronavirus variants.

Studies examining vaccines’ effectiveness against the P.1 variant, meanwhile, offer a mixed picture so far. Research conducted in a laboratory setting indicate that the variant was less vulnerable to vaccine-generated antibodies, but other studies suggest that the vaccines from drug companies Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca are both effective against the strain.

RELATED: Alaska will be first in U.S. to offer COVID-19 vaccines to all adults

This is a breaking news story. Check back for updates.

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