Alaska officials detect case of COVID-19 strain first found in South Africa that’s less affected by vaccines

An electron scanning microscope image of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

Alaska health officials said this week that they’ve detected the state’s first case of a mutant strain of COVID-19, first found in South Africa, that both spreads more easily and appears to be less affected by certain vaccines.

A single case of the variant, known as B.1.351, was discovered last month in the Anchorage-Mat-Su area, the state health department said in a new report on variants published Tuesday. But officials said more cases are likely circulating in Alaska, because the infected person had not traveled recently — suggesting they caught it from someone else in the state.

Cases of new, mutant strains of COVID-19 are rising sharply in the U.S., and experts warn that they could prolong the pandemic because of their higher contagiousness and their potential to evade vaccines.

The newly detected strain first found in South Africa contains a mutation that, in lab studies, appears to make the vaccines produced by drug companies Pfizer and Moderna slightly less effective.

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

The reduced effectiveness seems to be even more pronounced for the shots manufactured by Johnson & Johnson, though Dr. Anthony Fauci, a top federal official, said in a prepared statement last month that all the vaccines currently available in the United States provide “adequate” protection against variants.

In its report released Tuesday, the state also said it detected five new cases last month of a different strain of COVID-19 first found in Britain, known as B.1.1.7.

The state had previously announced two cases of B.1.1.7, which is more contagious and appears to cause more severe illness, and the report said the new ones were found in the Anchorage-Mat-Su area and Southeast Alaska.

Another concerning variant that’s been detected in Alaska is the P.1 strain, which was first discovered in Brazil and has been blamed for a sharp increase in cases in South America. Alaska officials announced one new case of P.1 in the Anchorage-Mat-Su area in their Tuesday report, for a total of six, though they said the new case was from February.

Officials have also detected dozens of cases of a variant first seen in California known as B.1.429, though they say that strain is less concerning because it doesn’t appear to be as contagious or vaccine resistant.

The new variant cases announced Tuesday do not represent a full picture of how the strains are spreading across Alaska, as state scientists are testing only a subset of positives.

State health officials have convened a consortium of scientists to do the complex laboratory sequencing work needed to detect the new strains, with an ambitious goal of 300 samples a week.

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

But a series of logistical problems, including supply shortages, thwarted the effort over the past month, and state officials went several weeks without publicly reporting any new variant cases.

Part of the problem was that a huge grant of federal testing money meant that Alaska was competing with other states for supplies, said Jayme Parker, who manages the health department’s labs.

“It just was sort of a perfect storm to not be able to purchase those supplies — and then once we purchased them, the vendor was also getting hit with every state trying to purchase the same supplies with that same funding,” she said. “You just had to get in queue and wait for your turn.”

Parker said the sequencing obstacles have been sorted out and that the 300 samples a week should be possible in the future.

She also said that Alaska bought a new sequencing machine that should be able to handle more samples, which should give the state additional options in the event of future supply shortages.

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Nat Herz covers government, politics, environment and COVID-19 for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at nherz@alaskapublic.org.

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