UTSW Scientists Identify Brazil Variant Of COVID-19 In North Texas
One reason the medical community pushes for vaccination against COVID-19 is to hold back variants of the disease that have found their way into North Texas.
Scientists at UT Southwestern Medical Center recently identified the latest: Two cases of the Brazil variant found in COVID patients.
Dr. James Cutrell specializes in COVID patient care at UTSW. He talked with KERA’s Sam Baker about variants and why the Brazil variety, in particular, concerns him.
What Is The Brazil Variant?
A variant means the virus has accumulated enough mutations that there's some change either in behavior, how easily it's spread, or possibly how it responds to certain treatments.
There's a number of variants being tracked across the world. This particular one, P-one, or sometimes colloquially referred to as the Brazil variant, is one example of those variants of concern that we've been tracking.
Discovery In North Texas
We've been doing sequencing at UT Southwestern, looking at the genetic code of that specific virus to find these characteristic changes or mutations in that genetic code that matches with what's been described publicly from this Brazil variant.
On average, we've been sequencing about 30 samples per week since the beginning of February from patients, employees, or different samples that come to the lab. And within the last two weeks, we identified the first two cases of this P-one variant that had been identified in North Texas.
We've now reported those cases to the Dallas County Health Department. They'll do a more detailed epidemiologic investigation: Had these individuals traveled? Who had they been in contact with? At UT Southwestern, we're mainly just doing the sequencing work to identify these variants.
Brazil Variant Vs. U.K. Variant
Over the same time period where we identified these two Brazil cases, the U.K. variant represented 55% of the total cases that we sequenced here in North Texas in our group. And if you look nationally, currently that U.K. variant is somewhere around 45% to 50% of all of the viruses that have been sequenced.
The U.K. variant appears to be more easily transmitted or more easily spread and more contagious, about 50% more easily spread. It also appears to possibly be related to causing more severe disease. However, the U.K. variant’s fully susceptible to our antibody treatments, as well as vaccine immunity.
The Brazil variant is able to partially escape some of the antibodies, either from the antibody treatments or some of the antibodies that are mounted by the vaccine. So, what we would call immune-escape. It partially is able to evade or escape from those antibody protections.
Cause For Concern?
The vaccines that we currently have available, even if they only provide partial protection, are able to provide enough protection. It appears to protect against a severe disease that would lead someone to the hospital or dying from COVID. But this is certainly a reason why we want to monitor these things closely because if new variants were to evolve or change, became even more resistant to the vaccines, that would be of concern.
Is Brazil Variant Worse Than COVID-19?
So far, we don't have any evidence suggesting this Brazil variant is associated with more severe disease. And so the main focus of what we understand about it so far is its ability, again, to partially escape that immune protection from people who've either had the infection previously or who have been vaccinated.
We still are recommending:
- High level of vaccination rates in the community so that the overall number of cases goes down
- Continue practicing physical distancing and masking until we get a high enough level of people vaccinated.
- Also, think long and hard about whether international travel is necessary or possibly postponing that depending on what the location might be.
Interview highlights were lightly edited for clarity.
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Corrected: April 27, 2021 at 12:28 PM CDT