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Testing Confirms Presence of COVID-19 Variant in State College Area, Penn State Officials Say

Amid a rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Centre County, infectious disease experts have confirmed the local presence of a more potent and highly transmissible variant of the virus that has made its way around the world.

The B.1.1.7. variant, often referred to as the “U.K. variant,” was detected in wastewater samples tested by Penn State, university president Eric Barron said during a virtual press conference with local leaders on Friday to urge continued vigilance as COVID-19 cases increase in the Centre Region.

Matthew Ferrari, director of Penn State’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics and an associate professor of biology, said that university and community officials have been operating under the assumption that the variant was already present ever since it was first detected elsewhere in Pennsylvania on Jan. 7.

In response to the trend of case increases locally, Ferrari said, an analysis of archived wastewater samples was completed this week and confirmed the presence of the variant. The sample where it was first detected was collected on March 7.

The variant is 30% to 50% more transmissible than the original virus, according to Ferrari.

“This is absolutely a more transmissible variant,” Ferrari said. “We have strong evidence from throughout the UK and Europe where we’ve seen this variant spread.”

It also has an increased likelihood of severe illness and death. Noting that the overall death rate of COVID-19 is low, “we are seeing on the order of about a 50% increase in probability of mortality associated with this variant,” Ferrari said.

All three COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the United States appear to have the same efficacy against the variant as with the original virus, Ferrari said.

Although more vaccines are being distributed and some restrictions on businesses and events are being relaxed, the variant and increase in cases heightens the need to continue practicing preventative measures, including masking, distancing, frequent hand washing and avoiding large gatherings.

“The vaccine we’re distributing in our community now is highly protective against this,” Ferrari said. “Really the goal here is to take preventative measures to ensure that we can get vaccines out to everybody as quickly as possible ahead of this increasing variant.

“Masking and distancing are still enormously effective preventative measures if you don’t have the vaccine and in fact even if you do have the vaccine.”