Identifying COVID-19 variants in Massachusetts

Coronavirus Local Impact

CHICOPEE, Mass. (WWLP) – Health experts say cases of COVID-19 variants in the state may be much higher than what numbers are showing.

The CDC identified five different mutations of COVID-19 that are “variants of concern.” In Massachusetts, there are 1,100 cases of the UK variant, the fourth highest in the U.S., 12 cases of the South African variant, and 102 cases of the Brazilian variant.

“We understand that the variants can be more transmissible than the original coronavirus, cause more serious disease and potentially be more difficult to control.” Jo Comerford, State Senator

Identifying the variants takes sequencing. Health experts say if we increase testing for variants, we can identify emerging variant outbreaks. All viruses mutate over time into new variants and as viruses spread, the more chances it gets to mutate.

Health experts say that five percent of cases need to undergo sequence testing in order to confidently identify variants. Right now in Massachusetts only 1.4 percent of tests undergo sequencing.

“It is worth noting that official numbers are likely lower than the real numbers in our communities.” Representative Bill Driscoll, Massachusetts 7th district

Massachusetts has a little more than 20 percent of the Brazilian cases currently in the U.S., more than any other state aside from Florida. The UK variant is the dominant one in the U.S. currently and it may be around 50 percent of new infections in Massachusetts.

“There is optimism that the vaccines still retain at least a substantial degree protection against the variants that exist currently. So currently it is a race of vaccines versus variants.” Dr. Dan Barouch, Beth Israel Medical Center, virology and vaccine research director

The broad institute of MIT and Harvard is increasing their sequencing capabilities from 200 samples a week to 4,000 to help the state identify variants.

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