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Missouri Officials Find Contagious Coronavirus Variant In 15 Wastewater Testing Sites

Researchers have detected a evidence of a more contagious coronavirus variant in the wastewater at the Blue River biosolids treatment facility in Kansas City Missouri and 14 other sites in Missouri.
KC Water
Researchers have detected a evidence of a more contagious coronavirus variant in the wastewater at the Blue River biosolids treatment facility in Kansas City Missouri and 14 other sites in Missouri.

Missouri health officials have found evidence of a coronavirus variant found in the United Kingdom in the state’s sewer systems.

Scientists at the University of Missouri and their partners at the state health department have uncovered trace amounts of genetic material from the more contagious mutated virus in 15 of the 23 state watershed testing sites they have reviewed so far.

“It wasn’t in every sewershed, but it was in a lot of them, which shouldn’t surprise us,” said Marc Johnson, a molecular biologist at Mizzou who’s spearheading the testing. “It’s now been found in 45 states.”

While the new varianthas been shown to be more contagious, it has not proved to be more deadly. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates it could become the dominant strain in the United States as soon as this spring.

Researchers also have recently started testing the samples for variants originally found in Brazil, California and South Africa.

The highest concentration of the U.K. variant was found in Marion County, where state health officials had identified a case of the mutated virus earlier this month. There, nearly 9% of the viral material found contained the variant.

However, many of the samples only contain small fractions of a percent of the variant compared with the original strain.

Small amounts of a variant first identified in California were also detected in the state’s wastewater.

Though recent sewage analyses have detected low levels of the U.K and South California variants, there is no clear association with increasing human cases of variant virus in Missouri.

The wastewater testing indicates the mutated virus is circulating in the state, said Dr. Randal Williams, the state's health director. But it’s unclear whether the low levels of the variant will increase.

“We understand that COVID-19 is a dynamic situation caused by a continually evolving virus, and we are committed to constantly studying it and adapting to it as needed,” he said.

Williams and other health experts said the identification of the variant is all the more reason for Missourians to remain vigilant in preventing the spread of the virus.

It’s likely the variant will become more dominant in coming months, so people will need to protect themselves, said Enbal Shacham, a professor of Behavioral Science and Health Education at St. Louis University.

As the original strain did last spring, it’s likely the variants will migrate to Missouri from international travel and coastal cities.

“It shouldn’t change our response right now,” Shacham said. “We should be ramping up vaccine access and rolling out vaccine so we can try to beat the variants.”

Both Moderna and Pfizer have said their vaccines are effective against the variant found in the United Kingdom.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio

Sarah Fentem reports on sickness and health as part of St. Louis Public Radio’s news team. She previously spent five years reporting for different NPR stations in Indiana, immersing herself deep, deep into an insurance policy beat from which she may never fully recover. A longitme NPR listener, she grew up hearing WQUB in Quincy, Illinois, which is now owned by STLPR. She lives in the Kingshighway Hills neighborhood, and in her spare time likes to watch old sitcoms, meticulously clean and organize her home and go on outdoor adventures with her fiancé Elliot. She has a cat, Lil Rock, and a dog, Ginger.