VCU researchers study UK COVID-19 strain as variant makes its way to Commonwealth

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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) – As the state tries to overcome the hurdle of getting Virginians vaccinated, another grim obstacle may slow those efforts. Experts have already identified three new strains of COVID-19 in the United States, which originated in South Africa, Brazil and the United Kingdom.

According to the Virginia Department of Health on Wednesday, the fourth case of the UK variant has been identified in a sample from an adult resident of Northwest Virginia who recently returned to the state after international travel.

The strain first emerged in the United Kingdom in late 2020 and is associated with increased person-to-person transmission of COVID-19. The VDH says preliminary reports from experts in the United Kingdom indicates that this variant causes more severe illness than other variants, but more studies are needed to confirm this finding.

For several weeks, VCU researchers like microbiology director Dr. Christopher Doern have been racing against the clock to study it.

“The way most of our tests work is we look at multiple different genes of the virus, and so we detect usually a couple of those genes and that’s how we generate a positive result,” Doern said.

Doern says these strains develop when the virus makes mistakes in its genetic makeup as it spreads from host to host.

“These mistakes oftentimes just go by the wayside, but sometimes they lead to some kind of advantage for the virus, and so that then selects for that virus. And I think that’s what we’re seeing here with some of these new variants is that these appear to be more transmissible,” Doern said.

Though the UK variant is more adept at spreading through the community, Doern says more information is needed to determine if the new strain is in fact more deadly.

“I think we have to reserve judgment with whether or not they’re more deadly, and I think it can be a difficult assessment to make because we are likely to see more infections with these viruses,” he said.

VCU Health has developed tests that can identify the UK variant, but Doern says what researchers need now is for all Virginians to take this virus seriously to keep these strains from making this pandemic any worse.

“The pandemic is as bad as it’s ever been, and so I think whatever amount of heightened caution there needs to be we ought to take seriously,” Doern said.

The VDH says it is important that all Virginians comply now with mitigation measures including wearing a mask, staying at least six feet from others, washing hands often, getting vaccinated for COVID-19 when it is your turn, and staying home if you are infected with COVID-19 or if you have had close contact with someone with COVID-19.

For more information on the variant strains, click HERE.

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