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As Michigan tamps down COVID, three new virus variants appear

Dr. Heather Blankenship, foreground, Steve Dietrich, and Elizabeth Burgess track coronavirus variants at the Michigan Bureau of Laboratories in Lansing as the variants take hold in Michigan.
Dr. Heather Blankenship, foreground, Steve Dietrich, and Elizabeth Burgess track coronavirus variants at the Michigan Bureau of Laboratories in Lansing as the variants take hold in Michigan. (Bridge photo by Dale Young)

Even as Michigan again appears on the verge of tamping down COVID-19, health authorities are keeping a close eye on three new coronavirus variants that have begun to circulate.

And chances are, you’ve never heard of them.

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That’s because the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services hasn’t publicly released data on them yet. That’s in part because concern has risen only recently about their danger of transmissibility.

As of Friday, public and private labs had confirmed more than 400 cases of the latest variants in Michigan known by a string of letters in the alphabet soup of genetic sequencing — B.1.427; its close relation, B.1.429, and six cases of a third variant, B.1.525, according to GISAID, an international database of genetic sequencing.

That’s likely an undercount, since only a small percentage of samples from COVID-positive tests are selected for genetic sequencing, a process that can take a week or more.

variant test tubes
While some COVID tests can diagnose within an hour whether a person is infected with coronavirus, sorting out the genetic code of those samples can take a week or more. (Bridge photo by Dale Young).

Whatever the exact number, more variants are an “inevitable” result of a lingering pandemic, with every new case providing an opportunity for the coronavirus to change, said Heather Blankenship, bioinformatics and sequencing manager at the state’s Bureau of Laboratories.

“I do think we're very much in that race trying to get to that herd immunity before we end up with a variant that's going to require either a booster or that may affect our diagnostics,” Blankenship told Bridge Michigan. 

In Michigan, more than 30 labs send at least 10 positive COVID samples a week to be sequenced at the lab, she said.

For months now, three now-familiar variants have taken hold globally and confirmed as well in Michigan: a variant first identified in the U.K. and known as B.1.1.7; a second identified in South Africa and known as B.1.351, and a third identified in Brazil and known as P.1.

The U.K. variant has proven the most concerning in Michigan, with 5,346 confirmed cases as of Friday. As Bridge Michigan has reported, experts believe it helped fuel the latest surge in COVID cases, including the worst-in-the-nation spike in Michigan which has been blunted only in recent days.

It appears that at least two of the three newest variants in Michigan are, like their predecessors, more transmissible than the initial coronavirus that spread across the globe early last year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies variants at three levels of danger: variants of “interest,” of “concern” or “high consequence.” The last category is the most serious, as it indicates medical interventions would fail against them. Fortunately, so far, none of the known coronavirus variants has risen to that level.

But last month, the CDC elevated two of the new variants in Michigan — B.1.427 and its closely-related B.1.429 — from a “variant of interest” to a “variant of concern,” aligning them with the three more familiar variants.

B.1.427 and B.1.429 were first identified in California. Their reclassification suggests that, like the earlier variants, they may be more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness and more difficult to diagnose, treat or prevent than the original virus behind COVID-19.

Preliminary data for B.1.427 and B.1.429, gleaned from more than 2,000 swab samples in California, indicate the variants are roughly 20 percent  more transmissible than the original SARS-CoV-2 variant responsible for the pandemic. On the bright side, they appear to be less transmissible than the U.K. and South African variants. 

That preliminary data has yet to be peer-reviewed nor confirmed by labs, a CDC spokesperson noted to Bridge Michigan in an email. 

Michigan plays catch up

The state’s health department has not publicly released routine updates about the most recent variants, though it has provided updates about the U.K., South African and Brazilian variants.

That’s because the variants weren’t considered “of concern,” until March, and it takes a week or more to sequence cases and even more time in reporting the results to the state, MDHHS spokesperson Lynn Sutfin told Bridge Michigan.

Chris Blair, a lab tech, prepares coronavirus samples for sequencing at the University of Michigan.
Chris Blair, a lab tech, prepares coronavirus samples for sequencing at the University of Michigan. (Courtesy photo)

Sutfin added that while commercial labs might load sequencing data into the GISAID database quickly, there’s not an automated route to do the same with MDHHS.

“I can’t speak (to cases confirmed by) commercial labs if they haven’t reported them to us,” she said.

As of Friday, the state listed just 219 Michigan cases attributed to the two California variants, even though labs had confirmed to GISAID nearly double that number (424 Michigan cases) of B.1.427 and B.1.429.

Also as of Friday, the state still listed no cases of the third new variant. GISAID listed 6 cases of B.1.525, which was first identified in the U.K. and Nigeria. Sutfin said that variant is not yet tracked by MDHHS because the CDC had yet to elevate it as a variant of concern.

As a practical matter, the presence of a new variant does not change how COVID-19 is treated or guarded against in Michigan.  

A COVID test may confirm as quickly as an hour or less whether a person has COVID, and that triggers contact tracing and possibly treatment — no matter what the genetic code, Sutfin said.

It may take a week or more to run sequencing tests, she said. 

The viruses’ lineage, in practical terms, doesn’t change the ground-level fight against the pandemic, said Sutfin, the spokesperson, and Blankenship of the state lab.

Whether they are variants or the original coronavirus behind the pandemic, the steps remain the same to prevent and control the virus — masking and social distancing and isolating when sick, for example.

Adam Lauring, a University of Michigan researcher and infectious disease expert who helps to track COVID and its variants through GISAID, agreed.

“I think sometimes we’re focused on the wrong thing,” he said. “Clearly B.1.1.7. (the U.K. variant) is a more transmissible variant. It spreads faster.

“But this means (people need to) do that much better at everything we're doing to control COVID — physical distancing, vaccines, all those things. The game got harder and so we need to do a better job at everything ... This isn't over.”

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