According to recent data from the Washington state Department of Health, a serious outbreak of the B.1.1.7 coronavirus strain occurred in Whatcom County during February, about a month earlier than it was expected to become the dominant strain statewide.
Fourteen cases of this variant strain, which afflicted Great Britain late last year, were detected in RNA specimens from confirmed cases of Covid-19 that were diagnosed here last month, according to the most recent state Department of Health report and Schuyler Shelloner of the Whatcom County Health Department. This number is second only to the number of B.1.1.7 cases that were detected in King County, which has almost ten times the population of Whatcom County and has registered 68 cases as of March 11 — plus six additional cases of two other variant strains. By contrast, Skagit County has identified only one B.1.1.7 case so far, and San Juan County has observed none.
To detect the variant strains, RNA from confirmed cases must be “sequenced” to determine whether it possesses the mutations characteristic of these variants. That takes time and special sequencing equipment that is not available at most in-state labs, so the specimens often have to be sent out of state for this analysis, leading to delays in obtaining the results.
To get an idea of how significant these 14 cases are, consider that only 23 to 52 specimens from confirmed county Covid-19 cases have been sequenced during the last 60 days, according to the state DoH map above. Assuming that all of these specimens were obtained in February, one can calculate that between 27 percent and 61 percent of this sample showed the B.1.1.7 variant. If fewer than that occurred last month, which appears likely, these percentages will come in higher. And if this sample is representative of all Covid-19 cases in the county, it means that there was a serious outbreak of the B.1.1.7 strain here.
If this sample is representative of all Covid-19 cases in Whatcom County, there was a serious outbreak of the B.1.1.7 coronavirus strain here.
For comparison, the statewide average frequency of this variant was about 11 to 12 percent in February, and King County, where the bulk of B.1.1.7 cases have occurred, comes in at about 13 to 56 percent. One could calculate a more accurate percentage for Whatcom County if the Department of Health (either state or county) could provide the exact number of February specimens that were actually sequenced, but public information officers have so far been unable or unwilling to provide these numbers. (If and when I get them, I will update this article accordingly.)
From research in Great Britain, the B.1.1.7 variant coronavirus strain appears to be about 50 percent more easily transmissible than the original strains, which is why it so rapidly became the dominant strain in Britain and in other European countries late last year and led to renewed lockdowns there. The RNA mutations seem to alter the virus’s spike proteins so that it latches more readily onto human cells and infects them more easily. The resulting infections may also be slightly more deadly, though the jury is still out on this question.
Fortunately, British research also showed that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is equally effective against the B.1.1.7 variant strain — and the similar Moderna vaccine is probably just as effective. There are no published results yet on the effectiveness of the recently approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine against this variant.
But the expected surge of this variant strain, which seems to be already occurring in the county, means that we cannot let down our guard just yet, despite the steadily increasing number of vaccinations. As Anthony Fauci and many other infectious-disease and public-health experts have urged, we have to keep wearing masks in public and maintaining our distance in social settings for a few additional months.
William Booth and Karla Adam, “First Real-World Coronavirus Vaccine Data in Britain Show Decline in Infections after First Dose,” Washington Post, 22 February 2021.
Sandi Doughton, “Can a Fourth Wave of COVID-19 Be Prevented?” Seattle Times, 9 February 2021.
Melissa Healy, “Why Easing up on COVID-19 Restrictions Too Soon Could Be a Boon for Coronavirus Variants,” Seattle Times, 11 March 2021 (originally published in Los Angeles Times).
Meredith Wadman, “A Question of Choices: Pfizer Vaccine a Leader on Confronting New Coronavirus Variants,” Science Insider, 3 February 2021.
Washington State Department of Health, “SARS-CoV-2 Sequencing and Variants in Washington State,” 11 March 2021.