Lamont: Deadlier, more infectious strain could comprise half of CT COVID cases

Photo of Peter Yankowski

Variants from the United Kingdom and New York comprised 85 percent of Connecticut’s COVID cases sampled last week, according to a new report.

About half of the cases sampled contained the U.K. variant known as B.1.1.7, Gov. Ned Lamont warned.

“It could be as high as 50 percent now,” Lamont said Thursday during his pandemic briefing. “The bad news is it’s highly infectious, so while over half of our population has been vaccinated, it’s spreading fast in the other half of the population.”

“The good news is the vaccines work — it works against this variant,” the governor added.

According to the latest report from Jackson Laboratory and the Nathan Grubaugh Lab at the Yale School of Public Health, cases of B.1.1.7 comprised about 51 percent of all positive COVID-19 cases sampled since the previous week.

That means B.1.1.7 cases increased about 9 percent from the previous week. All told, 945 cases of the variant have been identified in Connecticut through genomic sequencing, a process that involves testing samples from positive COVID-19 test kits.

In total, 85 percent of COVID-19 tests sequenced in the past week were either B.1.1.7, or another variant first detected in New York known as B.1.526. Only 12 percent of the samples were not deemed “variants of concern,” as B.1.1.7 is considered, or “variants of interest” as B.1.526 is classified.

“The competition between B.1.1.7 (and) B.1.526 is quite interesting, and could have significant public health importance,” Grubaugh, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Yale, wrote in a Twitter thread accompanying the report’s release Thursday. “Currently B.1.1.7 is ‘winning,’ though things could rapidly change as more people get vaccinated.”

The strain from New York comprised 34 percent of samples sequenced in the past week, down nearly 4 percent from the previous week. To date, there have been 478 cases of that strain reported in Connecticut. The strain has researchers concerned because it can contain mutations thought to help the virus evade monoclonal antibody treatments or vaccines.

The report is also tracking all variants with a mutation known as E484K, which is thought to help B.1.526 and other strains possibly escape the vaccines. With the drop in cases of B.1.526, the overall number of variants sequenced with that mutation is also down by a little under 8 percent from the week before.

“I'll take this as good news with the caveat that other mutations are also likely important for immune evasion,” Grubaugh tweeted.

The latest numbers on variants come as Connecticut edged closer to surpassing 8,000 deaths on Friday, with another five fatalities bringing the state’s official death toll from the virus to 7,995.

The daily positivity rate stood at 2.27 percent as 1,062 new infections were found in 46,768 tests. A net decline of 19 patients brought the state’s hospital census for the disease to 486.

B.1.1.7 has researchers concerned since studies have shown it can pass more easily from person to person, and because it’s thought to pose a greater risk of death to those who catch it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes the variant is thought to spread about 50 percent more easily than the first strains of COVID-19. It’s also “likely” to increase the severity of the disease based on hospitalization and fatality rates, according to the CDC.

However, researchers do not believe the variant has an increased risk to escape antibodies — whether as part of monoclonal antibody treatments given to people hospitalized for COVID-19, or in those who have been vaccinated or who previously had COVID-19.

When it was first detected earlier this year, the variant caused Britain to go back into lockdown as it quickly became the dominant strain there, Reuters reported. In Michigan, where cases are surging, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said the variant is partly to blame, WXYZ reported.

Connecticut officials reported last month the first known death in a resident who had the B.1.1.7 variant, but it’s unclear how many people have been hospitalized or have died with the strain.

“Not every person who’s hospitalized has a genomic sequence done,” said Josh Geballe, Lamont’s chief operating officer.

“What’s common about almost everyone who’s being hospitalized right now is that they were not vaccinated,” he added. “These vaccines work against these variants very effectively. So if it’s a topic you’re concerned about, my recommendation is go get vaccinated because you will almost certainly have very robust protection against severe illness that would land you in the hospital.”