South African COVID variant confirmed in Puerto Rico

Classified as mutation of ‘concern’ by Health Dept.

By Elsa Velázquez Santiago

Twitter: @elsavelazquezpr

Special to The Star

Health Secretary-designate Carlos Mellado López confirmed on Thursday the appearance in Puerto Rico of the South African coronavirus variant (B.1.351), a development he categorized as a “concern.”

The information came after an outbreak of infections in the San Juan metro area was identified. Seven cases were revealed after the outbreak; six people have the British variant and one person has the B.1.351 variant. The people identified as having been infected with the British variant have completed the vaccine sequence.

“We are constantly vigilant to the mutations of the COVID-19 virus; however, we must be on alert for the increase in variants identified on the island. It is of great concern to have among us, so far, 126 cases,” Mellado said. “However, the department’s epidemiology team is vigilant in monitoring cases so that they are treated effectively.”

To date, 126 cases carrying variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus have been identified, of which 104 are identified as variants of concern and 22 as variants of interest. No case of a variant of great consequence has been registered on the island.

Mellado said a variant of concern is when the virus presents changes that make it have particular characteristics, for example, being more transmissible and therefore generating more cases of COVID-19. Variants of interest have not yet accumulated the number of changes necessary to become a variant of concern, but they do have some of those characteristics, and for that reason they are kept under monitoring.

Among the variants of concern identified in Puerto Rico are 90 cases from the United Kingdom (B.1.1.7), 10 cases from California (B.1.429) and three cases of the Californian mutation (B.1.427). The variants of interest include two from Brazil (P.2), 15 cases of the New York variant (B.1.526) and five cases of its mutation (B.1.526.1).

The variant case report revealed that there are 46 cases in the Ponce region, 34 cases in the San Juan Metropolitan region, 14 in the Mayagüez region, 13 in the Bayamón region, and 9 in the Arecibo region. In the Caguas region there are five cases, and there are three in the Fajardo region.

The Health chief detailed that within the age range of 20 to 29 years, the highest number of variants has been identified with 29 cases, and 22 cases have been identified within the 40-49 age group, where an increase in COVID-19 infections has been seen in recent weeks.

“It is worrying, it is not a minor matter,” Mellado said. “The population has relaxed in preventive measures and in this way we are not going to stop the pandemic. The exhortation is to continue protecting ourselves and respecting health protocols. However, we have managed to advance in the vaccination process with more than 1.8 million doses administered, according to the federal government platform Tiberius.”

The Health Department’s Public Health Epidemiology Division is working in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in San Juan and the Ponce Health Sciences University (PHSU). In addition, three laboratories on the island -- Quest, LabCorp and Ilumina -- send samples to the CDC in Atlanta for sequencing and molecular surveillance.

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