Photo: Martin Lopez

The Alaska Public Health Laboratories and the University of Alaska Fairbanks laboratory hold key roles in the discovery of the SARS-Cov-2 variant strain of the coronavirus known as B.1.1.7 in Alaska.  The strain was originally detected in the United Kingdom in September.

An Anchorage resident who had visited a state where the strain was already discovered, tested positive according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS). This is the first identification in Alaska any of the variant strains that are raising concerns among public health officials. 

After returning to Anchorage, the person first experienced symptoms on December 17, was swabbed on December 20, and received a result on December 22, DHSS reports.

The individual lived with one other person who also became sick, tested positive and was successfully isolated according to contact tracers. Both individuals have since recovered.

“The two patients remained in isolation and stated that they did not have contact with others,” Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink added. “We are hopeful that transmission of this particular variant stopped with these two individuals, but we will very likely detect the variant strain again soon.” 

“Viruses constantly change through mutation so it’s not unexpected to find variants of the virus,” said State Epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin. “However, B.1.1.7 is one of several SARS-CoV-2 variants that has been carefully tracked because it appears to spread more easily and quickly than other strains of the virus.” 

The CDC has warned that this variant could become the dominant strain in the U.S. by late spring and has the potential to drive further increases in infections in coming months. 

“We’re not surprised this variant has been detected in Alaska,” said Dr. Zink. “We’ve been sequencing the viral genome from a subset of positive test samples to detect the presence of variants as quickly as possible.” 

Alaska’s Public Health Laboratories have been sequencing the SARS-CoV-2 viral genome from positive cases around the state since March 2020 to monitor circulating strains in Alaska. When significant variants began to be detected globally this past fall, the state labs directed those sequencing efforts to look for the presence of these variants in Alaska. To date, roughly 4-5% of all positive COVID-19 cases have been sequenced. This is four times higher than the national average for COVID-19 sequencing and on par with efforts in the United Kingdom, according to DHSS.

The Alaska State Virology Laboratory in Fairbanks screened the variant sample the same day of test collection and determined the sample was the B.1.1.7 variant. This finding was confirmed by the University of Alaska Fairbanks laboratory.

DHSS notified the Center for Disease Control Monday that the variant had been found in Alaska, albeit an imported case. 

“Sequencing is an important tool to keep track of coronavirus variants circulating in Alaska,” said Alaska Public Health Laboratories Chief Dr. Jayme Parker. “We’ve been keeping up this effort since last spring and are grateful to have strong collaborations with our universities to gain even more sequencing capacity at this time.”