Oregon Is the First U.S. State to Have an Identified Case of the Latest COVID-19 “Variant of Concern”

More contagious variants of the coronavirus carry the risk of another surge and may make vaccines less effective.

Oregon now has the distinction of being the first state in the country where the latest variant of the coronavirus has been discovered.

Already Oregon has reported 11 documented cases of the United Kingdom variant of the coronavirus and one case of the Brazilian variant.

But on Friday, The New York Times reported that Oregon Health & Science University had sequenced a case that was a U.K. variant with an additional mutation that could render the current COVID-19 vaccine less effective.

The same genetic mutation developed in the U.K. late in that country's surge in cases. The mutation—E484K, or "Eek"—also appears in the Brazilian and  South African variants.

Here's the way the Times describes it: "The B.1.1.7 variant with Eek also has emerged in Britain, designated as a 'variant of concern' by scientists. But the virus identified in Oregon seems to have evolved independently."

"We didn't import this from elsewhere in the world—it occurred spontaneously," OHSU geneticist Brian O'Roak told the Times.

Because the case was homegrown, scientists expect there is more than one case of it in the U.S.

There are two grave concerns from variants (and this mutation in particular): They could result in another surge in cases before vaccines are widely distributed, and they could make the vaccines less effective.

Dr. Anthony Fauci is warning that the more contagious variants circulating in the U.S. could spark another surge. Already the U.K. variant (without the Oregon mutation) accounts for an estimated 1 in 5 new cases in the country, the Times reported Sunday.

There is some debate about why another surge hasn't happened already, given the spread of the more contagious variants, and also whether it will.

The Times story breaking the news on the Oregon mutation ends with a word of caution:

"The Oregon finding reinforces the need for people to continue to take precautions, like wearing a mask, until a substantial portion of the population is immunized.

"'People need to not freak out but to continue to be vigilant,' [University of California at Berkeley's Stacia Wyman] said. 'We can't let down our guard yet while there's still these more transmissible variants circulating.'"

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