Minnesota health officials over the weekend identified five cases of a coronavirus variant first identified in the United Kingdom, adding to a growing list of states that have confirmed cases of the mutation and furthering concerns that the variant is likely already widespread across the country.
The U.K. variant, known as B.1.1.7, was “identified by genomic sequencing in positive specimens from five residents of four different counties in the Twin Cities metro area,” officials with the Minnesota Department of Health said in a Saturday news release, which noted that four of the cases were identified by state health officials while the fifth was identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
None of the cases, which range in age from 15 to 37, have been hospitalized, the state health department said. Illness onset was in mid-to-late December, from Dec. 16 to Dec. 31, per the news release.
At least two of the cases had recently traveled internationally, though it’s not clear where. One of the cases had no recent travel, while the others have “unknown” travel history, state health officials said.
Health department epidemiologists “are re-interviewing the cases to gather more information about how they were likely exposed and who their close contacts were. That investigation is continuing,” officials said.
The B.1.1.7 mutation was first discovered in the U.K. several weeks ago but has since appeared in several U.S. states, including Colorado, where it was first identified in the country, as well as New York, California, Florida, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, among others.
Last week, the CDC said that more than 50 cases of the mutated coronavirus strain have been identified across the U.S.
The strain is thought to be more transmissible than COVID-19. At this time, however, experts appear confident that existing coronavirus vaccines will work against the variant.
Minnesota State Epidemiologist Ruth Lynfield said in a statement that officials were “expecting to find the virus [variant]” in the state.
“Knowing that it is now here does not change our current public health recommendations,” she added.
“While it is thought to be more easily spread from one person to another, it has not been found to cause more serious disease,” Lynfield continued. “With RNA viruses, like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, it is not unexpected to see new, more successful strains emerge.”
“This virus makes it really hard for people to know whether they or the person next to them is infected – whether this strain or another strain – so we all need to do our part to protect ourselves and each other,” added Minnesota Director of Infectious Disease Kris Ehresmann, in a statement.
So far, officials with Pfizer and BioNTech — the companies whose COVID-19 vaccine candidate proved highly efficacious in late-stage clinical trials and was the first jab to see emergency approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — have voiced confidence in its ability to protect against the strain while also touting the flexibility of the technology should a tweak need to be made.