Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend

Brazilian variant

VDH identifies the state’s first cases of the strain.

- BY SABRINA MORENO smoreno@timesdispa­tch.com (804) 649-6103 Twitter: @sabrinaamo­renoo

The Virginia Department of Health has identified the first two cases of a COVID-19 variant that initially emerged in Brazil and has since pushed its hospital systems to crisis levels.

At least 30 states report at least one case tied to the strain, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data updated this week.

Early studies show the mutation is twice as contagious as the original and could re-infect people who already had coronaviru­s. Worsening concerns is its potential to be more resistant to vaccines and not respond to antibodies.

The CDC lists Brazil as a Level 4 risk, the worst assessment level, for contractin­g COVID and urges travelers to avoid travel to the country, whose daily death count has launched to being the second-highest in the world behind the U.S.

“Because of the current situation in Brazil even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants,” reads the advisory. “If you must travel to Brazil, get fully vaccinated before travel.”

On Friday, VDH said neither of the two Virginia residents traveled internatio­nally. One from the northwest region had traveled within the U.S. during the exposure period but the second, from the eastern part of the state, hadn’t traveled at all. Of the 674 variants currently being tracked in Virginia, nearly 80% are identified as the strain that originated in the United Kingdom followed by the one first found in South Africa.

“It is very likely that these variants are more common in our communitie­s than the number of reported cases suggests,” said Logan Anderson, a VDH spokespers­on. “This is because not all COVID19 positive samples are tested to see what variant type they are.”

More than 6.7 million diagnostic tests have been given since the start of the pandemic. Virginia is averaging roughly 18,000 tests per day over a seven-day period, or about 126,000 per week.

In early April, Virginia’s state lab, which has been ahead of states in its capacity to analyze testing samples, was averaging about 100 to 150 each week. This is partially because whole-genome sequencing, or how testing labs find traces of the variant in samples, is expensive and time-extensive.

The lab expects to increase its capacity to 400 with a long-term goal of sequencing about 1% of all positive COVID tests in a seven-day period. Calculatin­g from this week’s averages, that would be roughly 7,686 samples.

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