Variant detected

The by-now-ubiquitous illustration of a coronavirus, bristling with red spike proteins on the outer surface, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Courtesy photo) 

It was expected to show up at some point.

And now that it has, the only question remaining is which “it,” it is. 

The novel coronavirus is changing constantly. As a virus spreads, it mutates — and different variations of SARS-Co-V-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, are being detected all the time. 

The variants are of concern because they have the potential to be more resistant to vaccines, and more transmissible, than the original virus. One of the most notorious is a mutant first identified in the United Kingdom, dubbed B.1.1.7, known to be more readily transmitted — and, scientists said this week, probably deadlier — than the version of the virus first identified in Wuhan, China.

Other variants include B.1.1351, which emerged in South Africa, a strain from Brazil. This country has its own, homegrown variants, as well, including at least one first detected in California. On Friday, Japan announced yet another variant, E484K, responsible for 91 COVID cases so far. 

The jumble of letters and numbers conjure a kind of toxic alphabet soup (or soups), yet San Miguel County is doing its best to keep pace: Since last summer, the county has utilized Ft. Collins-based biotech concern GT Molecular to track the virus, and identify the presence of variants (if they exist) in local wastewater. 

“We know the wastewater tests have been very predictive of what our caseloads will be over the next week or two,” County Manager Mike Bordogna said, and although the latest results show greater amounts of the virus in the community — “It’s going up slightly,” Bordogna said — “it’s still much lower than it’s been. We’re really happy with the overall decline, which is a good trend.”

Even so, “We knew a variant was going to come to us eventually,” Bordogna continued (experts have predicted the U.K. variant will become the dominant strain in the U.S. by next month). 

“And the bad news is that we did detect our first variant. It’s of some concern that it’s been introduced into the community. We don’t know from whom, because it’s from the sewer shed.”

The variant “is not the one from the U.K.,” Bordogna stressed, but instead “one of the others that we’re in the process of investigating with the state. More information will follow.” 

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Jeffrey Kocher, a Mountain Village resident who helps the county interpret wastewater test results, explained that the tests “will alert us if something isn’t the regular, run of the mill virus,” at which point the results will be referred to state labs, to be scrutinized further. If the U.K. variant “does show up in the community, we shouldn’t panic,” Kocher emphasized. Covid-19 hospitalizations, and cases, have been dropping, he pointed out. 

“I think we’re on the downslope,” he said. “I think we’ve been on the downslope awhile,” owing to “lower disease levels” in the community, the arrival of vaccines, and more reasons yet to be determined scientifically. 

Cases have fallen not only nationwide and statewide, Kocher pointed out, but internationally, in countries like South Africa, and India, “where there’s been a 90 decrease in diagnoses, and yet the vaccine has played no role. There are many factors we still don’t understand.” 

What is understood is that more testing — more refined testing — is just around the corner. 

“We’re bringing the state back in to do large-scale testing — from 700-1,000 people at each session” beginning this week, according to Bordogna. 

“This is because we continue to have among the highest incident rates for counties in the state,” he explained. “The state is still concerned about us, and other mountain counties”— which have large numbers of visitors this time of year, and small numbers of ICU beds — “so it’s deploying additional resources.” Ramped-up testing will soon take place “in Grand County, where Winter Park is, Summit County, Routt County, where Steamboat is located, Lake County, where 70 percent of the workforce is employed in Eagle and Summit counties, as well as in San Miguel County and Ouray County,” Bordogna predicted. Complete local testing schedules, and Covid information, is available through San Miguel Health Department’s website. 

Many people track local COVID rates on the website, and “There’ve been a lot of questions lately, since the state moved to a 7-day average, from people asking, ‘Why can we trust your numbers?’” Bordogna said. “When we receive a test result, we report it on our dashboard that same day, but it takes about 3-4 days for those results to show up in the state’s system. It’s the same numbers; the same information. We feel that our numbers are more indicative, because we’re reporting how many positive cases there are at any given moment in time. Once the state makes a change in how they report their data, it will bring us all back into synch.”