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KUNC is here to keep you up-to-date on the news about COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — Colorado's response to its spread in our state and its impact on Coloradans.

53 Total Variant Cases Of COVID-19 Confirmed In Colorado

coronavirus cdc
U.S. Centers For Disease Control And Prevention
Transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19, formerly known as 2019-nCoV. The spherical viral particles, colorized blue, contain cross-section through the viral genome, seen as black dots.

On Dec. 29, Colorado became the first state in the U.S. to announce the discovery of a variant case of coronavirus. Since then, public health officials have confirmed a total of 53 variant cases of coronavirus.

The variant cases include 37 cases of the B.1.1.7 strain from the United Kingdom and 16 cases of the L452R variant from California.

Dr. Rachel Herlihy, Colorado's state epidemiologist, spoke with KUNC’s Henry Zimmerman about why variants are spreading and how they differ from the primary coronavirus strain.

Herlihy said COVID-19 variants are created over time as the virus spreads, mutates and changes genetic structure.

“Some of those mutations or changes in the genetic code make the virus more transmissible or potentially more likely to infect an individual,” Herlihy said. “When those mutations occur that give a virus the advantage to perhaps spread more easily from person to person, that is when these variants get the attention of public health.”

Herlihy said the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment tracks two categories of variants: variants under investigation, and variants of concern.

Variants of concern are those that international health officials have determined to potentially spread more easily, cause more severe disease or go undetected by routine testing. These variants may also make treatment and vaccines less effective. The B.1.1.7 variant from the United Kingdom is a variant of concern.

Variants under investigation are those that health officials are still studying to determine whether they have concerning characteristics. The L452R variant from California is under investigation.

Herlihy said that because some variants seem to spread more easily, including the B.1.1.7 strain, they could potentially cause the pandemic in Colorado to grow.

“If on average we believe that a typical COVID-19 infected individual spreads the virus to two other people, a more transmissible virus might mean that a person ... spreads it to three or four people,” Herlihy said.

Herlihy said the CDPHE is not concerned at this time about variants in Colorado being resistant to current vaccines. But Herlihy said there are variants elsewhere, including South Africa and Brazil, that have been associated with decreased vaccine effectiveness.

Officials expect most people will retain protection against COVID-19 from vaccines for many months. Even so, Herlihy said it’s possible that people will need to get booster shots at some point to maintain their immunity.

“The other possibility is if these variants become more common, specifically some of the variants shown to have decreased vaccine effectiveness, then we might need slight changes in the vaccine over time,” Herlihy said. “Similar to what we do with influenza, where the vaccine sort of needs to keep up with what strains of the virus are circulating ... But I think it's too soon to know whether we're going to need those types of booster doses and what that frequency might look like.”

This story is part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for Feb. 8. You can find the full episode here.