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Highly Transmissible COVID-19 Variants Have Been In Missouri Since Early January, State Data Suggest

Transmission electron micrograph of particles of SARS-CoV-2 — the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Transmission electron micrograph of particles of SARS-CoV-2 — the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Though COVID-19 case numbers are dropping and thousands of Missourians are being vaccinated each day, health experts worry that the spread of highly transmissible variants could derail progress on containing the pandemic.

Data released by Missouri’s health department on Friday show that at least two of these variants likely already infected residents as early as January.

In a news release, Dr. Randall Williams, head of the Department of Health and Senior Services, urged residents to remain vigilant.

“At this time, we do not know if these low variant virus levels will increase, so we must reemphasize that it is still really important to wash your hands well and often, maintain physical distance and wear masks if you can’t be distanced from others outside your household,” Williams said.

Wastewater samples collected on Jan. 6 near St. Louis and Columbia contained traces of the B.1.1.7. variant, which was first detected in the United Kingdom, and the B.1.427/B.1.429 variant, which was detected in California. Both are thought to be more transmissible than earlier versions of the coronavirus, and some studies suggest they may be more deadly or cause more severe disease.

Traces of these variants were also found near Independence and Kansas City later in the month.

The variants made up a small fraction of the virus found in the samples, generally less than 1%, although they added up to nearly 4% of samples found in Independence on Jan. 11.

The traces indicate that someone in the area was likely infected with the variant, according to Marc Johnson, a University of Missouri virologist who leads the surveillance research.

Lab testing has only confirmed a single case of the B.1.1.7. variant in Missouri.

The surveillance also found traces of a mutation called E.4.8.4.K., which has been nicknamed “Eek,” throughout the state.

The mutation, which was not matched to a known variant, has concerned scientists because it appears to help the virus evade the body’s immune system and may reduce the efficacy of vaccines or lead to reinfection.

Williams said the state would continue to monitor for variants.

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

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3

Alex Smith began working in radio as an intern at the National Association of Farm Broadcasters. A few years and a couple of radio jobs later, he became the assistant producer of KCUR's magazine show, KC Currents. In January 2014 he became KCUR's health reporter.