Michigan identifies first case of new COVID-19 variant

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

The state Department of Health and Human Services said Thursday it confirmed the first case of a COVID-19 variant that formed in Brazil, making it the fifth variant found in Michigan.

The P.1 variant was identified in a Bay County resident during a routine test on Wednesday, the Michigan health department said in a news release.

The Bay County Health Department has been notified and is investigating the resident's exposure  history to attempt to identify the source of the infection. The county is also requiring a 14-day quarantine for all of the resident's close contacts.

P.1 is the second new variant of COVID-19 to be identified in Bay County in the last two weeks, "and the rise of these new variants definitely impact the progress we have made this year with vaccinations," said Joel Strasz, public health officer of the Bay County Health Department.

Engineers and technicians set up and test the machines that will be used to manufacture Level 1 face masks on March 30, 2020 at the General Motors Warren manufacturing facility.

The P.1 variant was first identified in travelers from Brazil during routine airport screenings in Tokyo in early January. The variant has been associated with increased transmissibility and there are concerns it might affect both vaccine-induced and natural immunity, according to the state health department.

As of Wednesday, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recorded 172 confirmed P.1 cases in 22 states.

While there are some unknowns about each of the variants, the state will have to study how often those who are fully vaccinated develop infections, said Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer at the University of Michigan.

"The big concerns are that the monoclonal antibody treatments may not be effective and vaccination may be less effective. Some of this is unknown," Malani said. "Does this become a predominant strain? There are reasons to be hopeful that vaccination offers some protection but there are also reasons to be very concerned about this."

Michigan has also identified 1,468 cases of the United Kingdom variant B.1.1.7 in 51 jurisdictions, seven cases of the South African variant B.1.351 in five jurisdictions, three cases of a California variant B.1.427 in Jackson and Washtenaw counties, and three cases of another California variant, B.1.429 in Livingston, Oakland and Washtenaw counties, according to state health department data.

The Bay County Health Department has investigated three cases of the B.1.1.7 variant since the first case was identified in the county on Friday. 

Nick Maness, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at the Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, said B.1.351 and P.1 are similar in their mutations and the level of concern they raise.

"These variants are concerning because there is data that they may be able to escape immunity and infect people that were either previously infected or vaccinated," Maness said. "However, all the data suggest that the available vaccines are protective against severe diseases associated with infection with these variants. It is still unknown if vaccinated people that become infected with these variants can then spread the virus to others.

"There simply isn’t enough data to answer this yet," he said.

The state says current COVID-19 tests can identify all five variants. The available vaccines approved for emergency use in the U.S., Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, work against the P.1. variant, the state health department said.

"We are concerned about the discovery of another variant in Michigan," Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel said in a statement. "It is now even more important that Michiganders continue to do what works to slow the spread of the virus by wearing their masks properly, socially distancing, avoiding crowds, washing their hands often and making a plan to get the safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine once it is their turn. We all have a personal responsibility to slow the spread of COVID-19 and end this pandemic as quickly as possible."


Twitter: @SarahRahal_