A Variant Virus Outbreak in Whatcom County?

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.

References

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. 

About Michael Riordan

Posting Citizen Journalist • Eastsound, WA • Member since Nov 25, 2016

Michael Riordan writes about science, technology and public policy from Orcas Island, where he lives and kayaks. He holds a PhD degree in physics from MIT, having worked on the [...]

Comments by Readers

Steve M. James

Mar 12, 2021

I’m a bit curious as to where in the county these infections are most occuring. Or, has it spread equally throughout the county?

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Dick Conoboy

Mar 13, 2021

And P1 will no doubt surge out of Brazil given the chaos there as described in this Guardian article

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Michael Riordan

Mar 13, 2021

Yes, Dick, the P.1 variant from Brazil is truly worrisome as it seems to infect people who were previously infected with Covid-19 (from the original strain) and had presumably developed immunity to the virus. And I think the jury is still out on whether vaccines work against it, for the Sinovax vaccine from China has been the dominant vaccine used in Brazil.

FYI, there was just one case of the P.1 variant in the most recent 3/11/21 DoH report, in King County.

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Michael Riordan

Mar 13, 2021

The County Health Department has been silent on the geograhical distribution of the B.1.1.7 variants, Steve, and probably for good reason — although a lot of county citizens would like to know.

My own guess is that these 14 cases represent a cluster of related cases occurring among a group (or groups) of people who don’t follow public-health recommendations about wearing masks and physical distancing. Which would help explain why 13 of those cases suddenly appeared in the March 4 report when there had only been one case a week earlier. But that’s just a speculation based on little evidence.

I leave it to readers to guess where those groups might have been.

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Steve M. James

Mar 13, 2021

The location of these cases and clusters if they exist are important information for us to know. County health is being very negligent if it is not giving us all the information they can to stay safe and reduce the spread.

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Ray Kamada

Mar 13, 2021

Numerous media sources reported several days ago that the Pfizer vaccine was effective against both the UK and Brazilian variants, less so wrt the South African strain.

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Michael Riordan

Mar 19, 2021

Update 19 March 2021:

The most recent state Department of Health report on coronavirus variants indicates that the number of B117 variants in Whatcom County has almost doubled from 14 to 25 during the past two weeks of reporting. This is more than three times the number of variant cases in any other county except for King County at 93 cases, but that county has almost ten times the population. And the Whatcom County number represents 17 percent of the statewide total of 146 confirmed B117 cases.

Almost all, if not all, of these cases came from specimens collected in February due to unavoidable delays in sequencing and reporting. During that month, according to the latest DoH report, 6.1 percent of all confirmed cases were sequenced. This means that 11 to 12 percent of the cases in the state were B117 variants. For comparison, the Whatcom County variants represent somewhere between 21 to 38 percent of the county total confirmed Covid-19 cases in February.

More and more, this looks like a serious variant outbreak here.

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Ryan M. Ferris

Mar 22, 2021

Variant B.1.1.7 is also labeled Clade: ‘20I/501Y.V1’ in NextStrain.   NextStrain show this Clade/Variant is fast becoming the dominant strain here in Whatcom County:

https://nextstrain.org/groups/blab/ncov/wa/4m?f_location=Whatcom%20County

‘20I/501Y.V1/B.1.1.7’  has been destroying Europe for weeks now:

https://nextstrain.org/ncov/europe?f_pango_lineage=B.1.1.7&f_recency=3-7%20days%20ago

https://nextstrain.org/ncov/europe?f_recency=3-7%20days%20ago

I have no idea why this isn’t front page news…

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Michael Riordan

Mar 22, 2021

Thanks, Ryan,

I agree with you wholeheartedly on your last statement. One of the problems is getting good information from public information officers at the County and State health departments. The Herald seems to be just publishing their press releases without much scrutiny. I’ve been ballparking from what little I can glean from the weekly reports.

A little hard to read that NextStrain graph if you’re not a computer scientist or gene sequencer. Does the pie chart on the map below mean that something like 55% of the Whatcom County cases are B.1.1.7 variant? Is that in Febuary, or up to what date in March, March 19?

I believe the NWC readership, at least, would appreciate answers to these questions.

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Ryan M. Ferris

Mar 22, 2021

From NextStrain, It looks like of the new cases *that have been genetically sequenced* in Whatcom County, the B.1.1.7 variant or Clade: ‘20I/501Y.V1’ is becoming dominant.  But virology is almost an impenetrable science without a Ph.D. And then when you do get the jist of it, you find SARS-CoV-2 is not well understood  by virologists yet.  So, you are on your own with the Nextstrain interpretations. I did write a post, *inspired by your research*, that gathered more information I found useful: https://www.ncovd.org/2021/03/03152021-update-successful-mass.html

I am not quite ready to short Moderna’s stock yet. Nor take the vaccine just yet. I guess the spread of the new variant in Whatcom County could provide useful data. For example:

On the bright side, if there are B.1.1.7 re-infections of those that are fully or partially vacinated that may be interesting information valuable to those studying vaccine efficacy. On the dark side, if the fully vaccinated can indeed become ‘asymptomatic superspreaders’ shedding variants that don’t cause disease in them… that will be harder for forensic medicine to detect. 

Still resisting the urge to stock up on guns, ammo, alcohol today. But check back in 4 weeks…

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