Nevada State Public Health Laboratory detects first confirmed case of South African B.1.351 COVID-19 variant in Nevada

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A photo of a Nevada State Public Health Laboratory scientist working under the hood.

The Nevada State Public Health Laboratory is responsible for COVID-19 testing and whole genome sequencing of the COVID-19 virus in Nevada. Photo by Brin Reynolds/UNR Med.

The Nevada State Public Health Laboratory (NSPHL) at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine (UNR Med) has detected the first known case of probable B.1.351 South African variant in Nevada.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the variant has been detected in 10 U.S. states, to-date.  

The new strain was detected in a sample collected in Reno, Nevada. The NSPHL sequenced the specimen on Saturday, Feb. 13, and through further analyzation of the data that detected the B.1.351 strain, confirmed it as the South African variant on Wednesday, Feb. 17.

Nevada State Public Health Laboratory Director Mark Pandori, Ph.D. said the lab detected the case as part of its daily strain testing and sequencing program. The B.1.351 strain was traced back to a traveler from South Africa who became symptomatic after arriving Reno, Nevada.

The B.1.351 variant (a.k.a. "South African" variant) emerged independently of the B.1.1.7. variant, according to the CDC though like B.1.1.7, it also possesses mutations in the spike protein that the virus uses to bind, enter and infect human cells. The spike protein mutation may be associated with higher viral loads and may also hinder antibody binding, reducing naturally developed immunity and/or vaccine efficacy.  

Dr. Pandori says this strain "may be less susceptible to neutralizing antibody such as those generated by vaccines, but it is not yet known to cause a more severe illness and is not thought to be more lethal than the regular COVID-19 strain." He added that "there is some evidence that it may be less susceptible to vaccine-mediated immunity, however it does not render the COVID vaccine totally ineffective."  

"The virus is copying itself very often now, and that is what leads to variation. It happens through a process called 'mutating'," says Pandori. "The more a virus spreads in a community, the more opportunities it has to make mistakes when it copies itself. This leads to what we see here and it's a very natural part of viral evolution."  

The Nevada State Public Health Laboratory has been analyzing positive COVID-19 virus samples for variants, since mid-December 2020 through whole genome sequencing. The lab is currently working on surveilling most or all positive COVID-19 cases for the B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 strains. This surveillance will continue on a daily basis going forward. Dr. Pandori adds, "Daily sequencing of positive cases is not necessarily the norm, but has been adopted as a strategy by the Nevada State Public Health Laboratory so that we can cast a wide and very sensitive net.  Daily genetic testing will allow us to find cases closer to the time that they arrive, possibly limiting community spread. In this case, the carrier was a traveler from South Africa. So hopefully this is an example of that benefit."  

The Nevada State Public Health Laboratory is using CARES Act funds to purchase equipment that helps them identify mutations within any and all viruses through genetic sequencing. With the new equipment, scientists now have the ability to screen positive cases for the genetics associated with any variants of interest, including the U.K. B.1.1.7. and South African B.1.351 variants, to determine if the new strains are found in Nevada.  

While research and scientific advancements continue to build, Pandori says continuing to follow the recommended guidelines of staying home when you can, wearing facial coverings, frequent and proper hand-washing, social distancing, as well as wide-scale testing, contact tracing, and isolation of new cases is among the effective ways we can fight the virus and its variants. Those who are traveling internationally are reminded to quarantine at home for ten days upon their return and to get tested if they develop symptoms during that time.

"This is a novel disease. We still have a steep learning curve ahead and lots of work to do, especially as inconvenient truths arise," says Pandori. 

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The University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, Nevada's first public medical school, is a community-based, research-intensive medical school with a statewide vision for a healthy Nevada. Established in 1969, UNR Med is improving the health and well-being of all Nevadans and their communities through excellence in student education, postgraduate training and clinical care, research with local, national and global impact and a culture of diversity and inclusion.

Released: Thursday February 18, 2021 @ 10:00 AM