State public health officials said Tuesday that a COVID-19 variant first detected in Brazil has surfaced in Massachusetts.
The first confirmed case of the P.1 variant was identified in a Barnstable County woman in her 30s, the Department of Public Health said in a statement.
“Currently, there is no information available on the woman’s illness or whether she has recently traveled,” the agency said. “She tested positive for COVID-19 in late February.”
William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said, “It’s not a case to panic, but it is something to take very seriously.”
The P.1 variant is less studied than other “variants of concern” found in the United States, he said. But specialists believe it could be more transmissible than COVID-19, capable of reinfecting people who have recovered from the virus, or “some combination” of both, he said.
“I think it’s fair to say that none of the combinations are good ones,” he said.
The variant’s arrival was expected and Hanage said he was “pretty confident” that the current COVID-19 vaccines would offer protection against it. The vaccination campaign is crucial to preventing variants from taking hold, he said.
“The more people who are protected and unable to transmit, the slower [the variants’] sort of invasion is going to be,” he said. “And we want to keep it slow ... they are able to cause more infections than would have been the case otherwise.”
Any variant that is more transmissible “increases the fraction of the population you need to vaccinate in order to achieve control,” he added.
The new variant joins two others that have been detected in Massachusetts. According to the DPH, Massachusetts has seen 213 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant, originally found in the United Kingdom, and six cases of the B.1.351 variant, initially detected in South Africa. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published similar numbers on Tuesday.
The CDC has said it expects the B.1.1.7 variant to become the dominant variant in the United States in the coming weeks. It “is known to spread more easily and has caused a rapid surge of cases in the UK” and several other countries, the DPH said.
“The best defense against variants of concern is to prevent the spread of COVID,” the agency advised. “This includes wearing a mask, social distancing, avoiding groups, staying home when you are sick, getting tested if you have symptoms or are identified as a close contact of someone with COVID, and getting vaccinated when it is your turn.”