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South African COVID-19 variant identified in King County

The B.1.351 variant of the coronavirus initially identified in South Africa was found through genomic sequencing at the UW Medicine Virology Lab.

KING COUNTY, Wash. — A COVID-19 variant initially discovered in South Africa was detected in a patient in King County on Feb. 22.

The patient initially tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 29. The variant was identified through genomic sequencing at the UW Medicine Virology Laboratory

The person's travel history was not available because the person "was not able to be reached through contact tracing efforts." However, they did receive "appropriate counseling" for next steps and proper precautions. 

King County Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin said efforts continue to contact the person, but at this point, he is unaware of anything that could be done because so much time has passed since the patient tested positive. 

Evidence of 19 additional cases of variant B.1.17 first identified in the United Kingdom was also found, bringing the total number of known cases involving that strain to 39 in Washington state.

State Health Officer Dr. Scott Lindquist said the detection of the variants "reminds us that this pandemic is not over." 

"Despite the decrease in our case count, we are very concerned about the emergence of these variants and how it will affect future case counts," he said. 

The South African variant was identified in December and has been found in 10 states in the U.S. It is not known to cause more severe disease and it is not clear whether it spreads more easily. It can reduce the effectiveness of vaccines, but according to the Department of Health vaccines "still provide strong protection against severe illness and death." 

It's unclear if the variants will play a role in Washington state's reopening plan. Lindquist said it is "one of the big conversations" health officials are having with Gov. Jay Inslee. Though the number of coronavirus cases is declining, the number of variants being identified in the state is on the rise.