Penn Medicine finds viral variants of concern in over a third of latest COVID-19 samples

Experts call on the public to continue masking, social distancing, and other protection efforts to prevent spread and further mutation of the virus.

Despite the rising number of immunizations, more than a third of recent COVID-19 cases in the Philadelphia area are caused by concerning variants of the virus, according to a new analysis from a sample of patients from late February and early March conducted by Penn Medicine researchers. They say the findings—combined with an uptick in new COVID-19 cases in Southeastern Pennsylvania—underscore the need for continued vigilance by the public.

Gloved hand in a lab dropping blood sample from a pipette into a petri dish.

“The proportion of worrisome viral variants is rising, so it is critical for everyone to keep up precautions such as mask-wearing, and to get vaccinated when your turn comes up,” says Frederic Bushman, chair of Microbiology at the Perelman School of Medicine.

From the most recent random batch of positive case samples collected for analysis, Bushman and this team obtained 80 high-quality genome sequences. Of these, eight were the B.1.1.7 variant, which originated in the United Kingdom and was detected and reported in Southeastern Pennsylvania by the team in January 2021. Additionally, 14 sequences were the New York strain B.1.526, one was the California strain B.1.427, and one was California strain B.1.429. Together, these variants comprised 30% of the samples examined. All of these are currently listed as variants of concern by experts. In addition, the researchers found several other sequences with worrisome changes resembling some of the features of the Brazil and South Africa variants, pushing the proportion of variants found to be circulating in the region over 35%. 

“These variants may be contributing to the increase in COVID-19 cases in Philadelphia,” says Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, “but because vaccination still should protect against infection with them, our best response to this risk is still for everyone to be vaccinated as soon as they are eligible.”

This story is by Sophie Kluthe. Read more at Penn Medicine News.