The B117 coronavirus variant has been found in Hawai‘i.
Also known as the UK strain, this particular mutation of COVID-19 is up to 60% more transmissible than the original. Hawai‘i Department of Health’s State Laboratories Division (SLD) confirmed its the presence in a press conference Friday.
“It can spread more aggressively, so we’re going to have to be careful,” said Lieutenant Governor Josh Green, before adding the upside. “Vaccines do work against this variant.”
The first case of the variant was identified on O‘ahu, though it is suspected to be present across the state.
The confirmed case of B117, as well as multiple other possible UK-variant infections in Hawai‘i, do not include a travel history. That means the culprit was community spread, which indicates the virus has already permeated the state’s population to some degree.
“We have already initiated contact tracing investigations and are monitoring these cases closely,” said Acting State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble.
The confirmed specimen is one of four samples previously identified in Hawai‘i as having a molecular clue consistent with the B117 variant. The other specimens are still being analyzed.
SLD Director Dr. Edward Desmond said results on a second sample are due Friday evening, while the results of a third should be in by Saturday.
The division is performing genome sequencing on 300 specimens per month in an effort to track B117 and other possible variants, some of which have shown potential resistance to vaccines. None of those have yet been detected in Hawai‘i.
“The specimens selected for sequencing represent patients more likely to have variant strains, as well as specimens representing all parts of the state,” Dr. Desmond said. “The sequencing will indicate the presence of variant strains with any of the mutations of concern.”
The Lieutenant Governor urged people not to panic, asserting that the same tools used to fight the original COVID strain remain at our disposal: social distancing, wearing face coverings, avoiding large gatherings, and getting vaccinated.
“We are not helpless against this highly transmissible variant,” said Hawai‘i Governor David Ige. “Please limit your Super Bowl viewing parties to household members. Together, we can stay safe.”
Limiting social contact is as crucial now as it has ever been, as humanity has been pitted in a race against the virus — vaccinations vs. the spread of variants.
Hawai‘i is currently administering around 50,000 vaccinations weekly, often surpassing 10,000 per day, Green said. State goals are to administer 350,000 shots by the 1st of March, and 550,000 doses by the start of April.
As of Friday, the UK strain of the virus had been confirmed in at least 33 US states.