As screening for coronavirus variants increases in Alabama, so does the number of cases

There is at least one coronavirus variant case in Madison County.

Posted: Feb 22, 2021 9:17 PM
Updated: Feb 22, 2021 10:27 PM

Alabama now has 22 confirmed cases of the coronavirus variant first identified in the United Kingdom.

At least one of those cases is in Madison County. Just last month, the CDC chose to ramp up its screening for variants throughout the U.S. and here in Alabama.

Right now, the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) is working with the CDC and private labs to screen for variants. While it is confirmed at least one case is in Madison County, Dr. Karen Landers with ADPH said the CDC is not releasing specific data for each county, meaning there could be more.

"I think the most important message right now is that we are actively engaged in surveillance and that we are not just doing surveillance with just one singular laboratory doing sequencing," Landers said.

In Alabama, 1,778 positive COVID-19 cases have been sequenced for COVID variants. That is about 0.34% of cases in our state.

Out of those cases screened, the CDC has confirmed 22 cases of the variant first identified in the U.K. But there are two ways the state is screening for mutations.

One is through sequencing, which means a certain number of positive COVID tests are sent to the CDC or labs.

"The other is that if there are specimens that if when they are being tested by PCR show a slightly different pattern around the spike protein that might indicate a variant," Landers said. "There are some platforms, some laboratory, a slightly different pattern that could potentially indicate a mutant."

However, the U.S. only recently started ramping up screening.

"Definitely the United States, in general, we are running behind in the screening process for mutations," Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Ali Hassoun said. "Unfortunately, that applied to a lot of different things as well."

Hassoun said the CDC was screening less than 1% of cases. According to the CDC, it began regularly receiving COVID-19 samples from state health departments and other health agencies in November.

Then, on Jan. 25, it scaled up the process to receive 750 samples a week.

"So, their aim now as they try to get more funding, to go up to 10% of the virus to be screened," Hassoun said.

He points out the U.K. has consistently been screening 10% of positive cases throughout the pandemic. South Africa is now screening at least 5%.

He said it is important the U.S. continues to ramp up this process.

"It's very important to detect these changes very early to take precautions if you can or prepare for this," Hassoun said.

By knowing more about mutations in the virus, Hassoun said they can determine what changes, if any, should be made when it comes to treatments or vaccines.

If you have the variant, you will be notified by the health department and they will start a case investigation.

Dr. Landers added there are companies working on COVID-19 tests to detect variants. This would differ from the PCR and rapid tests currently available.

So far, no companies have filed for emergency use authorization.

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