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"U.K. Strain" May Have Arrived in Shelby County

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A recent COVID-19 case in Shelby County has been flagged as a possible variant strain from the United Kingdom, which threatens to undermine progress made in reducing transmission rates of the virus.  

The so-called B.1.1.7 or U.K. strain was first found in Tennessee in January with the state’s health commissioner, Dr. Lisa Piercey, predicting it could become the primary source of COVID infections by March. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the U.K. variant spreads more quickly than others, but is so far not thought to be more deadly. 

Local labs, working with the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, have been screening for it here in hopes that prompt detection will spur rapid contact tracing.

On top of some labs using specialized machines to identify unusual specimens and sending them to UTHSC for genetic sequencing, UT scientists are also examining about 100 random samples a week, says David Sweat, the deputy head of the Shelby County Health Department.

The health department on Monday received a notice of discovery of a suspected case of the variant. Federal and state health authorities will now review the specimen for confirmation.  

“What our local labs and the UT Health Science Center see is that this one looks like it has the genetic markers that make it look like it may be [a U.K. strain],” Sweat said at a Tuesday press briefing. “So that isolate is being elevated to further investigation by the other public health laboratories.”  

Sweat says that contact tracing will be a priority for people exposed to new variants. Two other strains—from South Africa and Brazil—also worry health experts as they migrate to the U.S. because of their potential to reinfect people who have already been sick with the coronavirus. Scientists are still trying to understand how effective vaccines will be against these mutations. 

Still, Americans are urged to get vaccinated as soon as a dose becomes available to them. In the meantime, Sweat says to not neglect pandemic basics—wear a mask, stay home if ill, wash your hands and avoid people outside your household.