After COVID-19 variant identified in North Carolina, doctors stress continued vigilance with the 3 Ws

Over the weekend, NCDHHS acknowledged the B.1.1.7 COVID-19 variant, first identified in the UK, has been found in North Carolina.

The case was found in Mecklenburg County from a sample at Mako Laboratories, which is testing COVID-19 samples in its Henderson facility.

"I think it's important on the front side for the contact tracing element. We want to get that data to the state health department as quickly as possible. This has been rampant in the UK, but the more we can do to limit that spread is huge from that standpoint," said Steve Hoover, the Vice President of Laboratories of Mako.

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Preliminary data has shown the new variant could be slightly more dangerous for people in their 60s, though the chief scientific adviser to the UK government stressed that "the evidence is not yet strong" and more research is needed. However, health experts do believe this variant is more transmissible.

Hoover said the lab, which tests samples nationwide, have discovered 25 instances of the B.1.1.7 variant. NCDHHS noted as of Friday, there were 195 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant discovered nationwide in 21 states.

"We want to have the data on the backside and the samples available if those vaccine companies or the CDC need to do their research as far as if the vaccine is effective, if we need those samples to help develop future vaccines," Hoover said.

Despite the concerns stemming from the new variant, Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease expert at UNC, said there's no evidence that it penetrates masks any more than previous strains.

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"If we can reduce transmitting the virus to other people, we reduce the effect of any variant. The variants only become a problem when they spread. And we know how to stop spreading. All the measures work for this just like they work for previous strains or variants," said Dr. Wohl, who stressed it is important for people to follow the 3 W's - wearing a mask, waiting six feet apart, and washing hands frequently.

Following a rough seven weeks stemming from holiday travel and get-togethers, new cases and hospitalizations have begun to dip in North Carolina, a positive sign, especially when coupled with an increase in vaccinations. Still, Wohl is warning people from getting too comfortable.

"We are not out of the woods. I think every trip to the store needs to be a calculated decision," said Wohl.

The confirmed presence of the B.1.1.7 variant in North Carolina highlights the continued importance of limiting interactions with people outside your home.

"We really have to be careful not to spread this variant among ourselves. Or other variants that may be more concerning," Wohl said.

Monday, Moderna shared their vaccine is effective against variants first identified in the U.K. and South Africa, though out of an "abundance of caution" the company is working on a booster shot of the latter strain.

"So far it seems like the vaccine should protect us (against other variants), especially against the U.K. (strain). I think now more than ever it's important for us to get the vaccine out, because I think there's a race going on between us getting the vaccine out and these variants emerging. Because there could be a variant where there is less of an effect of the vaccine. That's not happening right this moment. The other thing is there are some treatments for COVID-19, monoclonal antibodies, like (former) President Trump got when he was sick, and there is evidence that at least for one of those, some of these variants, it doesn't look like the monoclonal antibodies is as effective. So that may neutralize some of the effect of some of the few therapies we have of people who are in the hospital. Again, this is the time to get vaccinated. I know it's very hard to get vaccinated right now but once supply comes around and you have the chance, go for it. Because this is really important. That can help us stop the spread of variants as well as the virus that's around right now," Wohl said.
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