1st case of more contagious COVID-19 variant found in Harris County

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The Harris County Public Health has confirmed the first case of the COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7, the same variant discovered in the UK. This the first known case in Harris County and the State of Texas.

The patient has been identified as a man between ages 30 and 40 in southwest Harris County. Authorities say he has no travel history.

His condition is described as stable, and the man is quarantining in isolation. Authorities are reaching out to anyone the man has come into contact with.

"The fact that this person had no travel history suggests this variant is already circulating in Texas," said Dr. John Hellerstedt, DSHS commissioner. "Genetic variations are the norm among viruses, and it's not surprising that it arrived here given how rapidly it spreads. This should make us all redouble our commitment to the infection prevention practices that we know work: masks any time you're around people you don't live with, social distancing, and personal and environmental hygiene."

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The variant is considered more easily transmitted, but is not thought to be more severe than previous strains.

During a briefing, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo responded to the confirmation of the first case of the new COVID-19 variant and said the county is tracing the individual and "all care is being taken to make sure that he remains in isolation until cleared by public health officials."

She added that the county is responding to the finding of the new variant by investigating all the links of the individual and making sure that people who may have been exposed are quarantined.

Hidalgo mentioned that while there is no evidence that this new variant on its own is more lethal, "it will respond to the current vaccine. But the point is, the more cases of this virus we see, the more people will be hospitalized, the more people will die."

While the county is working hard on the tracing of the new variant, Judge Hidalgo says they are not going to pretend that this is something they can contain.

"The strain has already been identified in other states, it's the first one that's been identified in Texas, but this individual does not report any travel. So for all we know, it's something like the tip of the iceberg. This is the first evidence that it's here. But, more likely than not, we can be pretty certain that it has been here," she said,

WATCH: Harris Co. Judge responds to 1st case of new COVID-19 variant strain near Houston
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While Harris County is working hard on the tracing of the new COVID-19 variant in the area, county Judge Lina Hidalgo says they are not going to pretend that this is something they can contain. Watch the video above for more on what the county is doing.



WHAT'S CONCERNING ABOUT THE RECENT MUTATION FOUND IN ENGLAND?



Health experts in the U.K. and U.S. said the variant seems to infect more easily than others, but there is no evidence yet it is more deadly.

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Patrick Vallance, the British government's chief scientific adviser, said that the strain "moves fast and is becoming the dominant variant," causing over 60% of infections in London by December.

RELATED: US to require negative COVID-19 test from UK travelers

The variant is also concerning because it has so many mutations - nearly two dozen - and some are on the spiky protein that the virus uses to attach to and infect cells. That spike is what current vaccines target.

"I'm worried about this, for sure," but it's too soon to know how important it ultimately will prove to be, said Dr. Ravi Gupta, who studies viruses at the University of Cambridge in England. He and other researchers posted a report of it on a website scientists use to quickly share developments, but the paper has not been formally reviewed or published in a journal.

HOW DO THESE NEW MUTATIONS OCCUR?



Viruses often acquire small changes of a letter or two in their genetic alphabet through normal evolution. A slightly modified strain can become the most common one in a country or region just because that's the strain that first took hold there or because "super spreader" events helped it become entrenched.

A bigger worry is when a virus mutates by changing the proteins on its surface to help it escape from drugs or the immune system.

"Emerging evidence" suggests that may be starting to happen with the new coronavirus, Trevor Bedford, a biologist and genetics expert at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, wrote on Twitter. "We've now seen the emergence and spread of several variants" that suggest this, and some show resistance to antibody treatments, he noted.

WHAT OTHER MUTATED VERSIONS HAVE EMERGED?



In April, researchers in Sweden found a virus with two genetic changes that seemed to make it roughly two times more infectious, Gupta said. About 6,000 cases worldwide have been reported, mostly in Denmark and England, he said.

Several variations of that strain now have turned up. Some were reported in people who got them from mink farms in Denmark. A new South African strain has the two changes seen before, plus some others.

The one in the U.K. has the two changes and more, including eight to the spike protein, Gupta said. It's called a "variant under investigation" because its significance is not yet known.

The strain was identified in southeastern England in September and has been circulating in the area ever since, a World Health Organization official told the BBC on Sunday.

WILL PEOPLE WHO HAD COVID-19 FROM AN OLD VARIANT BE ABLE TO GET THE NEW ONE? WILL IT UNDERMINE VACCINES?



Probably not, former U.S. Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation."

"Unlikely," Gupta agreed.

President-elect Joe Biden's surgeon general nominee, Vivek Murthy, said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that there's "no reason to believe that the vaccines that have been developed will not be effective against this virus as well."
Vaccines produce wide-ranging responses by the immune system beyond just those to the spike protein, several experts noted.

The possibility that new strains will be resistant to existing vaccines are low, but not "inexistent," Dr. Moncef Slaoui, the chief science adviser for the U.S. government's vaccine distribution effort, said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."

"Up to now, I don't think there has been a single variant that would be resistant," he said. "This particular variant in the U.K., I think, is very unlikely to have escaped the vaccine immunity."

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