JACKSON COUNTY, Mo. — The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services said the first confirmed case of the B.1.351 COVID-19 variant has been identified in the state.
The B.1.351 variant, which was originally identified in South Africa in December of 2020, was found in a sample taken from an adult in Jackson County. It was identified through the whole genome sequencing conducted through a commercial laboratory.
Jackson County is in the western portion of the state and contains portions of Kansas City.
According to the CDC, 386 cases of the B.1.351 variant have been identified across the country.
This is the second variant found in Missouri, according to CDC data. There have been 35 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, which was originally discovered in the United Kingdom.
The CDC said variants — including B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 — seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19.
So far, studies suggest that antibodies generated through vaccination with currently authorized vaccines recognize these variants, the CDC said. This is being closely investigated and more studies are underway.
“We continue to encourage prevention measures to be in place as we identify more positive cases of these variants,” said Dr. Randall Williams, director of DHSS. “We also continue to ask that individuals consider getting vaccinated when they are able. The vaccines that are currently available in the United States appear to be effective against these variant viruses.”
Scientists are getting a better grasp on COVID-19 variants and how the strains are affecting communities around the world. What they're finding is that the new viral strains are easier to transmit and are putting more young people in the hospital.
"A COVID variant is basically the COVID-19 virus that has changed itself, because it has been out making more of itself over and over," explained Washington University infectious disease specialist Dr. Jason Newland.
Reproducing and mutating is what viruses do. Dr. Newland said there is a 50/50 chance that if you get COVID-19, you contracted a variant.
"At this time, as a patient, we're not going to know if we have a variant or not," Dr. Newland told 5 On Your Side, adding that sequencing for COVID-19 strains is typically done at the state and national level.
Doctors and researchers, like Newland, are worried about the trends they are seeing with COVID-19 variants.
"They can transmit it better, it appears. Doesn't matter if you're an older person, middle aged person, a young person or a child, they're likely to transmit it better," Newland said.
He added that B.1.1.7 — the variant first detected in the U.K. — is most prevalent in the U.S., but that other variants are most likely here as well. He's been monitoring surges in Michigan and New York City and said it's probable that variants are to blame for the uptick in COVID-19 cases.
There is a path out of this pandemic, one Dr. Newland said we should run, not walk to.
"It's a race. It's kind of a race for us all to get vaccinated, so that we don't see some version of a surge," he said.
Variants may mean more COVID-19 vaccines down the road. So far, the vaccines available now tackle the current strains, but Dr. Newland said if a new variant is resistant, doses can be quickly adjusted.
Drug companies are used to altering vaccines to meet the most pressing viral strains. Influenza mutates too, which is why the flu vaccine changes every year.