25 Investigates: Mass. screening fewer than 1% of COVID positive tests for more contagious UK variant

UK variant could become the dominant strain by March

BOSTON — New strains of the coronavirus are circulating in the United States.

The more contagious UK variant, first identified in England in September, has now been confirmed in 28 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Massachusetts and Connecticut are, so far, the only New England states to identify the variant. But the CDC says the UK variant, which spreads more quickly in people, could become more prevalent by March and may begin to strain hospitals.

That prediction concerns Dr. James Lee, a dentist in Malden.

“We’re one of the few medical specialties where our patients can’t wear a mask,” he said. “Our office, is aware of concerns regarding new variants, but we feel strongly that we’re able to safely provide essential dental care to our patients, regardless of the variant.”

Until he better understands the threat and scope of the new variant, Lee says he will remain hyper focused on keeping his staff and patients safe.

25 Investigates wanted to know what is being done locally to detect and stop new variants from spreading in the state so we took those questions directly to the Department of Public Health (DPH). Investigative reporter Ted Daniel found Massachusetts is falling short when it comes to surveillance for the new variants.

Identifying new strains of the virus involves an additional step in a lab known as “sequencing,” where scientists map out all the building blocks of the virus and look for mutations.

DPH tells 25 Investigates the UK variant is the only new strain that has been found in Massachusetts to date, and it’s not widespread. In fact, the agency reports only three cases, as of Tuesday.

But a deeper dive into the official data reveals the numbers don’t tell the full story. 25 Investigates found only a tiny percentage of COVID cases that are actually being screened for the new variants. The state says it “is sequencing 100 samples per week.” Based on the current 7-day average of positive COVID cases of 3,011, that works out to be less than 0.5% of sequenced tests. In an email, DPH adds that it “is prioritizing samples that are more likely to be associated with a variant.”

The lag in sequencing is not exclusive to Massachusetts.

The CDC estimates that in the U.S. only about 3,000 of 200,000, or 1.5%, positive COVID tests are actually sequenced to look for new strains.

Overall, the U.S. ranks 32nd in the world for sequences completed, according to GISAID Initiative, which provides a global database of coronavirus genomes.

Infectious disease experts 25 Investigates spoke to for this story stress the importance of ramping up sequencing to help bring the pandemic under control.

“It does make sense that [the UK variant] will become the dominant strain because we know it’s more contagious than the other strain,” said Dr. Richard Ellison III, an infectious disease specials at UMass Memorial in Worcester. “After about three or four rounds of it spreading, you’re going to get easily twice as many people infected with a new variant.”

Ellison says viruses constantly change and mutate, and COVID-19 is no different, adding that the UK variant is believed to be 50% more contagious. One preliminary study found it may also be more dangerous.

Dr. Bronwyn MacInnis of the Cambridge-based Broad Institute’s Infectious Disease and Microbiome Program, the emergence of new variants of coronavirus across the country makes genomic surveillance all the more important to limit spread.

“We’ve only been sequencing, doing that full treatment on a small fraction of the positives. That’s partly because there’ve been so many positives that it’s been hard to keep up with that. I’d say it’s less than 1%. We’re aspiring to more on the order of about 5% of positive cases,” said MacInnis.

The Broad Institute, an MIT and Harvard research center, is collaborating with the state’s DPH on variant surveillance.

As part of President Biden’s $415 billion COVID-19 response plan, he’s allocating money to boost genetic sequencing to track new strains.

Currently, there is no evidence that the new variant is resistant to the two vaccines approved in the U.S. for the coronavirus .

But some researchers believe booster doses may be required to combat some of the new strains.

Dr. Lee, the Malden dentist, received his COVID vaccine on Tuesday. If an additional booster is recommended down the road he says he will gladly get it.

“We’re open to whatever vaccination protocols are necessary to keep both our dentists and our dental team safe,” he says.

Dr. Ellison, the UMass Memorial infectious disease expert, says the emergence of the new variant in the state is a reminder that residents should continue to protect themselves by wearing a mask, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings.

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