Question: Do we have the new mutant variant strain in Memphis?Answer: Yes. Over the past months, our local laboratories have been randomly looking at the genetic code of the COVID-19 viruses, a process called sequencing. Over 450 COVID-19 viruses have been sequenced at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center Laboratory under Dr. Colleen Jonsson.

Last week a variant strain has been found where the mutations are identical to the United Kingdom variant, B117 strain. Now, the state health department is reviewing the data and confirming the findings.

Does one sample mutant strain mean that is all we have?
No. In fact, we likely have hundreds of this mutant strain in our city. It was only because we were doing surveillance randomly that we picked up on this mutant case, that is why we need to test more for the mutant strains. 

What does the new mutant variant strain in Memphis mean to me?
This virus strain is 50% more transmissible. That means 10 people may not be spreading the virus to just 10 people but 15 people. So the virus will continue to spread not weeks or months but years. The fear is that a third wave of infection may occur.

Also, while the preliminary results showed that the mutant UK strain did not cause greater illness, the new data is showing that such may not be the case.

There is a 35% higher mortality rate with the new virus strain in UK. All this is concerning, just when we were controlling the epidemic in Memphis and Shelby County.

What can we do from the public health perspective?
The public health response has to be swift and strong. We need to do detailed contact tracing of the positive case and get details of how they got infected and who they infected others.

We need to then fan out our efforts: Doing PCR testing of all contacts as well as all the places the person has gone will be critical. There are certain markers called “S-drops” which signal that it can be a variant virus and so those have to be looked for in all the PCR testing. If found then they have to go to sequencing.

With our efforts over the past year, we have capacity to do the testing and sequencing in Memphis, unlike many other cities.

The testing effort can be expanded to affected zip codes as well as for many people who are not having symptoms. If we find a large cluster then we can consider doing a rapid mass-vaccination effort in the region to stop the spread of the virus to other parts of the county, similar to what was done in the UK.

What can I do as an individual to stop the spread of mutant viruses?
We are truly in a race between the virus and the vaccine. For Memphis, the clock has started with the new strain being identified locally. Our objective is to keep the new strain from going from a cluster to community transmission.

We need to slow the circulation of the virus through masking and distancing. Also, more people need to be inoculated with the vaccine to stop the spread.

Fortunately, both vaccines are shown to be effective against the UK strain.

Source : Commercial Appeal