Health Care

A 3rd Covid-19 variant has been detected in Vermont, officials say

Mark Levine at podium
Mark Levine, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, speaks at a press conference in December. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Vermont health officials have detected the state’s first case of the P.1 Covid-19 variant, a highly transmissible mutation of the virus that originated in Brazil, officials said at Gov. Phil Scott’s press conference Tuesday.

The Massachusetts-based Broad Institute, a lab that processes many of Vermont’s Covid-19 tests, told the state Monday that it had detected the P.1 variant in one specimen from Vermont, according to Health Commissioner Mark Levine. The state is still awaiting information on where the resident infected by the variant lives and their travel history.

Like two other variants detected in Vermont recently, scientists believe the P.1 variant may be up to twice as transmissible as previously dominant strains of the virus. 

“As I’ve said before, this is not unexpected, but it’s a concern,” Levine said. “The variants we have found in Vermont spread more quickly from person to person, faster than we can vaccinate people. This is why everyone needs to follow the guidance very strictly to prevent the spread of the virus.”

As Covid-19 spread rapidly late last year, more contagious variants emerged in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil. New strains appeared in Oregon, California and New York in the past several weeks. 

The U.K. and California mutations of the virus have each arrived in Vermont already. As he reported the arrival of the P.1 strain on Tuesday, Levine said that evidence points to those variants’ presence accounting for Vermont’s steady, high rate of infection in recent weeks. 

The variants have had health officials on high alert because they are significantly more contagious than earlier strains and because research suggests vaccines do not provide equal protection against some of the emerging mutations of the virus.

The P.1 variant, which is responsible for a surge of deaths and cases in Brazil in recent months, arrived recently in New England, where it has driven a rise in new infections in Massachusetts. 

While P.1 contains a mutation that may limit immunity, scientists still believe vaccines are effective — albeit possibly less so — against the new strain. Early lab results suggested last month that Pfizer’s vaccine still protects against each of the variants but may do so less effectively than against earlier strains.

To date, the Centers for Disease Control have recorded more than 15,000 cases of the U.K. variant in the U.S. The agency has logged 374 cases of B.1.351, which originated in South Africa, and 289 cases of P.1 nationwide. 

On Tuesday, officials said the variants’ presence in Vermont highlights the need for a quick and effective vaccine rollout, as the state and country are now engaged in a race between vaccinations and variants. 

The more people who can get vaccinated, the harder it is for variants to spread from person-to-person, Levine said.

“It’s all about slowing the rate of spread and markedly reducing the chance for various strains to succeed, because the virus is just not able to be passed around and mutate” when more people are vaccinated, Levine said.

The announcement of the P.1 variant’s arrival came as Scott rolled out an ambitious four-phase plan to lift most Covid-19 restrictions by July 4. Levine said the variants’ spread is unlikely to affect that plan’s timeline.

“The fact that the variant strains are more transmissible is one of the reasons that there are more cases, but again, these are cases that could be prevented with vaccines if we could just get vaccines into peoples’ arms fast enough,” he said. 

Burlington has been monitoring wastewater for viral activity since August and announced in January that it would begin testing wastewater for the B.1.1.7 strain of the virus, the variant from the U.K. that health experts believe may soon be the dominant Covid-19 strain in the U.S. The city first detected traces of the strain in wastewater samples Feb. 11.

The health department reported the first documented case of the U.K. variant in a Chittenden County resident nearly a month later. Days after that, two Vermonters — one in Chittenden County and one in Franklin County — were found to have tested positive for the variant that originated in California. 

This story has been updated.

Burlington’s main wastewater treatment plant along the Lake Champlain waterfront. Photo by Jim Welch/VTDigger

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James Finn

About James

James is a senior at Middlebury College majoring in history and Spanish. He is currently editor at large at the Middlebury Campus, having previously served as managing editor, news editor and in several other roles there. James was a reporter this summer at the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and earlier was an intern at the Addison County Independent.

Email: [email protected]

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