United Kingdom strand of COVID-19 found in Johnson County

The Iowa Department of Public Health confirmed on Monday that three cases of a more easily transmissible COVID-19 variant were identified in Iowa, with two of three cases in Johnson County.


Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen

Vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are seen before they are injected, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, on the 12th floor of the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital in Iowa City, Iowa.

Rachel Schilke, News Editor

Three cases of the United Kingdom-variant of COVID-19 – a more easily spreadable strand of the virus – have been confirmed in Iowa, with two cases reported in Johnson County.

In Johnson County, an adult between the ages of 18 and 40, and a middle-aged adult between the ages of 41 and 60 have contracted the variant. The third adult individual was confirmed to have the variant in Bremer County.

The variant, SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.7, is called the U.K. variant as it was first detected in the United Kingdom, according to a release from the Iowa Department of Public Health sent on Monday.

The release said the Coralville-based State Hygienic Lab had been participating in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) Strain Surveillance Program by sending COVID-19 samples to be tested for the U.K. variant.

Routine analysis of genetic sequence data helped identify the variant strain in Iowa, the release said.

In a press conference on Monday, University of Iowa Professor of Microbiology and Immunology Stanley Perlman said the variant has 17 mutations in its strand, and scientists are unsure how that occurred. 

Perlman said a particular mutation in the UK variant, N5O1Y, makes the virus more transmissible. He said scientists determined this mutation on its own was present in hosts in the U.S. as early as January 2020, but did not do much damage on its own.

Since the pandemic was officially declared a national emergency in the U.S. on March 13 of 2020, State Medical Director and Epidemiologist Caitlin Pedati said in the news release that multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have been documented in the U.S. and globally.

“Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time. Sometimes new variants emerge and disappear. Other times, new variants emerge and persist,” she said in the release. “Public health will continue to work with our partners at SHL to monitor these trends and it is very important that we all keep practicing good public health protective measures.”

Johnson County Community Health Manager Sam Jarvis said in an interview with The Daily Iowan that the difference between the original COVID-19 strand and the U.K. variant is that the latter is more transmissible, and can cause more individuals to become infected at a time.

To state and county officials’ knowledge, he said, the severity of symptoms has not increased with the UK variant and is not the main concern. 

Perlman said with the original variant of COVID-19, one out of 100 people who contract the virus in Iowa die. If the variant becomes as active as experts say, he said, the number may go up, despite the severity of the virus remaining the same as the original.

“If it is more contagious, there’s going to be more people infected,” Perlman said. “If everything else is the same, if now you have 400 people infected instead of 200, two of those 400 are going to die. So the absolute number of deaths will have gone from one to two.”

Perlman said he does not believe there will be more deadly mutations as time goes on.

“What viruses like to do is transmit,” he said. “So, from the virus’s point of view, it is doing just fine. If it transmits really well and kills one out of 100 people, from the virus’ stance, this leaves a lot of people left to be infected and transmitted to and from.”

Jarvis said the appearance of the variant does not require people to add precautions, but underscores the importance of existing state and county-wide precautions.

“Certainly if we are looking at a variant that is more contagious, follow the personal protective measures: wear a mask, wash hands,” he said. “If you are ill, please stay home. And if you are exposed, get tested.”

Jarvis said contact tracing for the U.K. variant will stay the same, and asked Iowans in Johnson County to continue complying with officials who reach out for disease investigation.

“We appreciate people understanding,” he said, “…so we can stop transmission as much as possible to stop the virus.” 

As previously reported by The DI, Iowans that are 65 and older will now be eligible to get the vaccine at local pharmacies and clinics as Iowa moves into Phase 1B of the vaccination process.

Priority groups in this phase include law enforcement, first responders, Pre-K through high school teachers and staff, early childhood educators and child-care workers.

Beginning Feb. 15, Iowa schools will begin offering an in-person option. Schools in Iowa City, currently in an hybrid model, will offer both an all-online and all in-person option to fit the ruling. This will lead to more people interacting face to face, upping the chances for transmission.

“The biggest thing on everyone’s mind right now is the vaccine,” Jarvis said. “We recommend that if you are eligible to do so, please get vaccinated. Regardless of a new variant or the current strand we are particularly looking at in terms of the pandemic, all of the different measures we can take are important. They can be implemented together to reduce risk.”

Perlman said getting vaccinated is important because it will decrease the number of people the virus can grow to and limit the number of mutations.

“The virus makes these changes and then they have to get selected and they have to get to populations,” he said. “The less you make that possible, the better it is for preventing new viruses and increased transmission. If the virus can’t grow, it can’t change.” 

Perlman said testing specifically for the variant will be more difficult than testing for COVID-19 (of all strains), and labs will have to conduct sequencing rather than testing for antibodies and antigens, as there are subtle differences between the UK variant and the original COVID-19 strand.

He said the vaccine does not work as well against this new strand. However, in his mind, this is a “glass half full rather than half empty” situation, he said.

“Even with the South African variant, which is definitely harder to deal with, it [the vaccine] is protection against all [COVID-19 related] diseases,” Perlman said. “It’s at maybe 50 to 60 percent, which meets the bar for what we wanted a vaccine to do…there is protection. It may not be as perfect as it is against the original virus. But the goal here is to prevent us from going to the hospital and even dying from the infection. That’s the goal, and they all seem to be doing pretty well in preventing that.”