ANCHORAGE — The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported last week that an Anchorage resident tested positive for a variant strain of COVID-19 known as “B.1.1.7” which was originally discovered in the United Kingdom last September.
DHSS announced on Jan. 26 that the Anchorage resident returned from a state where the variant strain had been identified and isolated upon arrival, infecting only a roommate who also tested positive and has since recovered.
“We’re not surprised this variant has been detected in Alaska...We’ve been sequencing the viral genome from a subset of positive test samples to detect the presence of variants as quickly as possible.” said Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink. “We are hopeful that transmission of this particular variant stopped with these two individuals, but we will very likely detect the variant strain again soon.”
As of Jan. 31, the Centers for Disease Control reported 467 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant in the 32 different states in the U.S. There are two other variant strains that have been reported by the CDC, and the U.S. currently has three cases of the “b.351” strain variant and one case of the “P.1” strain variant. The CDC warned that the B.1.1.7 variant could become the dominant strain in the United States by late spring with the potential to further increase infections in the coming months.
“Viruses constantly change through mutation so it’s not unexpected to find variants of the virus,” said State Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin. “However, B.1.1.7 is one of several SARS-CoV-2 variants that has been carefully tracked because it appears to spread more easily and quickly than other strains of the virus.”
The sample of the B.1.1.7 strain variant collected from the Anchorage resident was screened by the Alaska State Virology lab in Fairbanks and was found to be missing the spike gene, indicating a possible variant. The sample was a part of a group of over 300 specimens in Alaska with spike gene target failures that have been sequenced over the last three weeks. The lab’s initial analysis was then confirmed by the University of Alaska Fairbanks lab and the DHSS notified the CDC on Jan. 25. The Alaska Public Health Laboratory has been sequencing genomes of positive cases around Alaska since the first positive cases were detected last March to monitor the strains circulating around the state. When significant variants were detected globally last fall, the state labs in Alaska began sequencing efforts directed at finding the presence of variants in Alaska.
“Sequencing is an important tool to keep track of coronavirus variants circulating in Alaska,” said chief of the Alaska Public Health Laboratories Dr. Jayme Parker. “We’ve been keeping up this effort since last spring and are grateful to have strong collaborations with our universities to gain even more sequencing capacity at this time.”
On Jan. 26, DHSS reported that roughly 4-5 percent of all positive COVID-19 cases have been sequenced, which is four times the national average and on par with the UK. As of Feb. 1, there have been 52,668 positive cases among Alaska residents, with 63 new cases announced on Monday. There have been 1,791 total nonresident cases, 39 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 and 260 Alaskans have died.
There have been 27,566 Alaskans who have completed their vaccine series and 95,881 persons have received at least one dose of vaccination. The state allocation of vaccines is 119,100.
In the Mat-Su, 22 new cases were announced on Monday for a total of 7,459 resident cases in the Valley. There have been 58 nonresident cases and 27 Valley residents have died. The current alert level for the Mat-Su is high and the seven-day case average is 20.14. There are three people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in the Mat-Su.