Tennessee health officials have identified a more contagious variant of the novel coronavirus, known as B117, within the state, and are warning that it could accelerate outbreaks just as they show signs of abating.
Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said Friday she expects the mutation to be the predominant strain in Tennessee by March. Notably, she said there is not yet evidence that the variant increases severity of disease or risk of death in those who get it, and both vaccines that have received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration seem to be effective in preventing illness.
The B117 variant was first identified in the United Kingdom, triggering national lockdowns that will be in effect until the middle of February, and has since spread throughout the world. The variant was identified in samples taken from a Tennessee resident infected a few weeks ago, Piercey said.
“If you are wondering why we haven’t made a big deal about this is because we don’t really think it’s that big of a deal,” she told reported in a call Friday afternoon. “I don’t want to downplay the risk of transmission because it is much more highly transmissible than the current strain or the current variant that we’re dealing with.”
Piercey says the new strain could result in larger case numbers and wider case spread, inevitably filling more hospital beds and adding to the death toll as the state races to vaccinate its population before it mutates any further. Also on Friday, the state detailed a new timeline for its vaccine rollout after it became clear that the federal Operation Warp Speed plan won't meet its distribution promises.
“It doesn’t change anything we are doing,” Piercey said. “We need to keep reminding people that the same thing that prevented them from getting the current strain are the same things that will prevent them from getting the new strain.”
She also noted another strain, 501Y.Vs, first identified in South Africa, could render current vaccine renditions ineffective. That strain has not yet been identified in Tennessee. It is unclear how many mutations have been identified across the state since the start of the pandemic.