The state’s announcement that a Cape woman has the first detected case of the Brazilian variant of COVID-19 in Massachusetts has raised concerns about coronavirus reinfection.
The P.1 variant of SARS-CoV-2 seems to be more transmissible than the standard COVID-19 infection “and seems to be capable of avoiding immunity from previous infections, which could lead to reinfections,” according to Dr. Kevin Mulroy, chief quality officer for Cape Cod Healthcare.
The state Department of Public Health announced Tuesday morning that the variant was confirmed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to have infected a woman in her 30s living in Barnstable County.
State officials said the woman tested positive for COVID-19 in late February, but they had no additional information about her illness or whether she had traveled recently. The CDC identified the woman’s case through genetic sequencing for a national surveillance program.
The P.1 variant was first found in Brazil and is fairly widespread in that country, particularly in the area of Manaus, Mulroy said in an emailed statement.
The variant appears to be 2.2 times as transmissible as the standard coronavirus, he said.
“Fortunately there does appear to be evidence that the current mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) do provide at least some protection from the P.1 variant,” Mulroy said.
The so-called Brazilian variant has similarities to the B.1.351 variant originating in South Africa in that it appears to be a little more resistant to antibodies from previous infections and vaccination, said Dr. Dan Jones, professor of pathology at Ohio State University, where he has been working on the genomics of SARS-CoV-2 and predictors of COVID-19 disease severity.
“It raises the possibility that reinfection can occur” and that vaccines may be a little less effective, Jones said.
The ethnicity and nationality of the Cape woman who contracted the Brazilian variant is not known.
But the possibility of reinfection is of particular concern to the Cape’s Brazilian community, which already has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic, said Murylo Batista, of Mashpee, who has a master’s degree in demography and health from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
Batista, who was born in Brazil, said he has family members in that country and the U.S. who have become seriously ill with COVID-19.
Immigrants from Brazil make up the third largest group of Massachusetts residents born outside the U.S., after China and the Dominican Republic, according to U.S. Census Bureau information.
They often have front-line jobs that expose them to the public, working in sanitation, delivery services and home health care, Batista said.
But Batista said the relative geographic isolation of the Cape puts it in a “position to be a really safe place” as long as people follow safety protocols.
Jones pointed out that there has been only one case of the Brazilian variant detected in Ohio since early January.
“In the past two and a half months it’s hardly become the dominant strain,” Jones said.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the CDC had not counted the P.1 case in Massachusetts among its surveillance data for the U.S., which noted that only 25 cases of the Brazilian variant have been officially detected — as opposed to 4,690 cases of the U.K. variant and 1,351 cases of the South African variant.
Department of Public Health officials said that as of Tuesday, there have been 213 cases of the U.K., or B.1.1.7, variant in Massachusetts and six cases of the South African, or B.1.351, variant.
“The B.1.1.7 variant is known to spread more easily and has caused a rapid surge of cases in the U.K., several other countries and parts of the United States,” DPH officials said.
They said the best defense against variants is to stop the spread of COVID-19 by wearing a mask, social distancing and avoiding groups.
Health officials also advised people to stay home if they are sick, and to get tested if they have symptoms or are a close contact of someone with COVID-19.
Get “vaccinated when it is your turn,” they said.
More variants will emerge, Jones said. The U.K., Brazilian and South African variants are listed as “variants of concern” by the CDC due to evidence of increased transmissibility, more severe disease or reinfection.
The CDC Monday added an additional category, variants of high consequence, which would include variants for which vaccine effectiveness is significantly reduced, Jones said. So far there are no variants fitting that category.
To learn more about the new variants, go to: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/transmission/variant-cases.html.
Contact Cynthia McCormick at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @Cmccormickcct.