Why It’s Very Bad News That The First Confirmed US Case Of Covid-19 Variant Had No Travel History

Yesterday, Colorado Governor Jared Polis announced that a man in his state tested positive for the more infectious B117 variant of the novel coronavirus. While it is the first confirmed case of this variant in the United States, it’s almost certainly not the only case.

First detected in the United Kingdom in November, the B117 variant has quickly circulated across much of Britain and led to a lockdown of much of southern England. Research suggests the UK variant is 56% more transmissible than the version of the virus already ravaging the United States. Yesterday, the US recorded over 201,000 new Covid-19 infections and over 3,700 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University’s tracker.

Moreover, the mutation has proven to be an opportunistic traveler. In less than two months, the UK variant has globetrotted to at least 17 countries, from Europe to the Middle East to Southeast Asia and Oceania and to North America.

While it was perhaps inevitable that the B117 variant would arrive in the United States, it is bad news that the first confirmed case is someone with no travel history. That means he is not the only case in Colorado or likely elsewhere in the United States for that matter.

As other countries confirmed their first cases of the UK variant, these infections were almost always discovered in people who had recently traveled from the United Kingdom.

For example, Israel and Germany were able to confirm that the first cases of the B117 mutation were found in passengers who had just flown from England. Likewise, in Sweden and Spain and Singapore, the first confirmed cases of the variant were all passengers who had recently arrived from the UK. Canada quickly determined that its first two cases were a couple that had close contact with someone who had recently traveled to the UK. These countries were able to quickly isolate these initial cases in the hope of stopping the spread of the more highly-infectious variant in its tracks.

How seriously are countries around the world taking this variant? Consider Japan, which just one day after confirming its first case of the B117 mutation, announced a temporary ban on non-resident foreign nationals from entering the country through January 2021.

But throughout this dismal year, the US has been a failure when it comes to contact tracing and genome sequencing. Last week, the CDC acknowledged in a statement that since the beginning of the pandemic, sequencing had been conducted on only about 51,000 of the 17 million US cases — or less than one third of one percent. “Given the small fraction of US infections that have been sequenced, the variant could already be in the United States without having been detected,” said the CDC.

A more recent CDC statement indicates that the US is now rapidly ramping up genome sequencing and further characterization of the virus. “This system is now being scaled to process 750 samples nationally per week. One strength of this system is that it allows for characterization of viruses beyond what sequencing alone can provide,” per the statement.

Justin Lessler, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The Washington Post that he would be “astounded” if this were the only chain of transmission of the new variant in the United States, adding that the lack of a travel history indicates “this strain has gotten here sometime in the past, and there are chains of transmission ongoing.”


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