The U.K. variant of COVID has been confirmed in Vermont for the first time. On Thursday, officials in the state’s largest city reported they detected evidence of the variant in wastewater.
Last August testing began at Burlington, Vermont’s wastewater facilities three times a week for signs of COVID -19. Considered an emerging technology for early detection of the coronavirus, the testing is done under the guidance of the CDC and any positive results must be confirmed with further tests. The process is meant to mitigate the spread of the disease.
In mid-January Burlington expanded testing to detect COVID-19 variants. Mayor Miro Weinberger announced Thursday afternoon that testing results received Wednesday night had identified the more contagious U.K. strain. “We’ve been signaling for weeks that we know that these variants are nearby and they were likely to get here soon. And in fact when the results came in there was an indication that we have detected mutations associated with the U.K. variant of COVID-19.”
Burlington Chief Innovation Officer Brian Lowe: “We detected it in the city’s main wastewater plant which is a broad service area across the city. It includes the South End, the downtown, parts of the Hill Section and the Old North End. So it’s kind of a wide catchment area and we can’t detect with any more specificity where within that watershed it is. And one of the challenges with the wastewater testing is that it’s very hard to extrapolate from the readings to a specific case count. Really what the wastewater is most helpful in showing us both that we have it, or likely we have, this B.1.1.7 variant. And it’ll help us over time see the trend of how prevalent it is relative to the other coronavirus. Right now because we picked it up at basically close to our limit of detection it appears to be a very limited number of people in the community that would have it.”
Lowe says the results are considered preliminary until further tests on the samples are completed. “The genomic sequencing that the state does I believe takes several days at least and maybe a week or longer. The other challenge is that they would have to look in this kind of broad catchment area at confirmed cases and then find the confirmed case or cases that have these mutations. So it could be a while before they identify both because of the process and then because the number of cases that they have to check through. The other question: how likely is it that this variant is here? The reason that we are reporting this news is that these two different mutations on two different proteins in the coronavirus, both of those mutations being present at the same time is highly indicative of the B.1.1.7 variant.”
Weinberger says while it is a concern, detection of the variant was anticipated and moves the city and Vermont into a new stage of the pandemic. “By identifying the variant early while there appears to be very low levels of the new variant circulating within Burlington we have an opportunity to heighten our community vigilance and slow the spread of this more contagious virus. We’re in this critical period here where more and more of the highly vulnerable members of our community are getting vaccinated. By acting together, using the strategies that have talked about so many times over the last year, we can slow the spread of this more contagious variant.”
In a statement the Vermont Health Department noted that wastewater sampling looks for only two specific mutations and the results should not considered definitive but “it does indicate the variant is most likely present in Vermont.” The department will conduct genomic sequencing tests from COVID-19 positive individuals to confirm the results. Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine stated “It is not… surprising. We expected that variants could be circulating in Vermont, and now that looks to be the case.”