More virus variants likely on the way, health officials warn

With one in four cases linked to variants, NJ’s top medical official says, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing and get vaccinated’
Credit: phylofigures via Creative Commons under CC BY 2.0
Example of virus sequencing

At least one in four recent COVID-19 infections diagnosed in New Jersey is likely linked to a coronavirus variant, according to federal figures, and state officials warn other new strains are probably on the way.

And while these mutations may spread more easily and could make people sicker than the original strain, officials say the time-tested precautions are still effective and urge New Jerseyans to continue to wear masks, maintain physical distance, wash their hands, get tested for COVID-19 and, when eligible, get immunized against the virus.

“While I certainly believe the variants are contributing to New Jersey’s increases in cases now, if we weren’t having this variant around I’d be saying pretty much the exact same message: Keep doing what you’re doing and get vaccinated,” Dr. Edward Lifshitz, the medical director of the New Jersey Department of Health’s communicable disease service, told NJ Spotlight News in an interview Friday.

READ: COVID-19 variants help drive NJ infection rate to highest in nation

WATCH: Testing expands on different fronts in race to curb COVID-19

Variant cases climbing

New Jersey had reported a total of 960 coronavirus variant cases by Friday. Of these, 806 were connected to the highly infectious U.K. strain — reportedly 50% to 70% more transmissible than the original form of the virus — and 131 linked to the New York variant. Ocean and Monmouth counties have long had the highest number of these cases, but the fastest growth last week was seen in Hudson and Union counties, according to state figures.

Estimations based on data from mid-February through mid-March, released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indicated nearly 26% of New Jersey’s positive diagnoses were tied to the most transmissible variants. Close to 23% were attributed to the U.K strain alone and 2.7% were tied to a pair of mutations called the California variants.

“Pretty much every variant that’s been seen in the United States has been seen here,” Dr. Lifshitz said, although some in very small numbers. Neighboring states are showing similar spread, he noted.

According to the CDCs estimations, 21% of the positive cases in New York State are likely tied to these aggressive variants, with 15.7% linked to the U.K. version. In Pennsylvania, these variants account for an estimated 19% of the cases, with 14% connected to the U.K. strain alone. The CDC’s tracking is focused largely on the mutations that spread most easily or make people sicker, and the New York variant is not currently part of this group.

State health commissioner Judy Persichilli said last week officials are seeking to increase New Jersey’s capacity to analyze, or sequence, the DNA structure of positive coronavirus tests from around 2% to closer to 5%. Pershichilli said she expected that larger capacity to be in place this week but noted that, even with minimal screening showing relatively low numbers of cases, “we must make the assumption, particularly that the U.K. variant is throughout our state in high numbers.”

Lifshitz said that, given the complex process and specialized equipment required, sequencing machines are available at few sites, including the state’s public health lab, some larger commercial labs, a few academic centers and a few major hospital systems. Some samples from positive diagnoses are chosen at random, while others are targeted for review because they are unique, say exhibiting unusual spread, or vaccine resistance, he explained. They are they analyzed in batches, a process that can take days.

Sequencing shortcomings

“Targeted (sample sequencing) lets me know what’s happening in areas I’m concerned about, but it doesn’t let me know what percentage of my total cases are any particular variant,” Lifshitz explained. He has also sought to expand the geographical spread of the samples analyzed.

Sequencing facilities then report their data to the state, which posts updates to its COVID-19 dashboard three to four times a week, according to the DOH.

Last week New Jersey was recording more than 4,000 new coronavirus diagnoses daily, according to state figures, and more than 940,000 have been infected since March 2020. Nearly 25,000 people have died as a result. In response, the state’s COVID-19 vaccine program has administered some 5 million shots and nearly 2 million people are fully immunized.

Excerpts from NJ Spotlight News interview with Dr. Lifshitz

Credit: (Rich Hundley III, The Trentonian)
Dr. Edward Lifshitz of the NJ Department of Health

On viral mutation in general: “That’s just what virus do. The very term variant sounds scary, as does mutant, which is a term some people use, but viruses are mutating all the time. It would be incredibly surprising if (these viruses) all looked the same. The fact that the CDC calls these “variants of concern” or “variant of interest” is because there are dozens of other of variants floating around out there that don’t rise to that level, that people aren’t paying attention to because they aren’t showing anything that is concerning about them. It’s not the least bit surprising that we’re finding these variants. And the harder people look the more we will see.”

On how they spread: “The South African variant was first noticed months ago. But in those months people move around, they travel. It would be very surprising to me if we didn’t eventually see any variant that’s being seen anywhere, that’s found in any significant portion anywhere, not coming to New Jersey. As you mentioned we’ve got Newark Airport, JFK’s right there, we’re a major hub, with major travelling; it’s almost impossible to prevent this from coming.”

The take-away? “We know this virus is not a good virus and we know how it spreads. And it spreads the same way whether it’s a variant or not a variant. And whether something is a bit more contagious or may have somewhat worse of an outcome in that it is making people sicker, to me that’s not the most important thing. To me the most important thing is, we know how to stop it in the first place. We’ve been doing it for a while and I know people are tired, but it’s same measures. It’s masking up, it’s not congregating, it’s being outside more than indoors, it’s washing your hands, it’s being careful if you think you might have been exposed, it’s being tested and probably the most important thing, it’s getting vaccinated as soon as you can to prevent the spread.”

READ: Despite vaccines, latest models predict rising COVID-19 before slow decline

WATCH: Experts: NJ needs more vaccine to stop spiking COVID-19 cases`

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