Although there has only been one confirmed case in Missouri of the COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7, first detected in the U.K., wastewater surveyors have found it in multiple locations in the state.
Marc Johnson, a virologist at MU who conducts research for the Missouri Coronavirus Sewershed Surveillance Project, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the variant was found in more than 13 wastewater systems in the state.
Missouri has only recorded one official case of the variant, but Johnson said only a few hundred genomes have been sequenced. Sequencing genomes is traditionally done by state health labs or the CDC.
“That’s how you confirm whether you really have the variant or not,” Johnson said.
So, although B.1.1.7 has been found several times in wastewater analysis, more official diagnoses will take a long time, and the variant will be harder to locate than standard COVID-19.
The current disparity between official variant cases and wastewater findings is easier to understand when the variant’s statistics are considered, Johnson said.
“If you say one in 1,000 of the cases in Missouri are B.1.1.7, how many would you have to sequence in order to find it?” he said. “It’s not terribly surprising.”
With a single official case of the variant, Missouri ranks very low in states where it’s present, according to the Centers for Disease Control website.
“To be clear, it is in 44 states, it’s not just in New York and California and Florida,” Johnson said. “We know it’s everywhere.”
Johnson said because Columbia is a college town, the traffic in and out could potentially put the city more at risk, but “it’s pretty much everywhere anyway. It’s a little late to close the barn door.”
B.1.351, or the variant first detected in South Africa, has not been detected in Missouri, either in people or in the wastewater. Missouri’s overall number of COVID-19 cases is also trending downward. However, Johnson made it clear that caution and safety are still imperative, especially because the variants are present in other states.
“The things we need to do haven’t changed. We need social distance, we need masks, we need to get the vaccine when it’s our turn,” Johnson said. “It is still preventable, it’s maybe just a little harder to prevent.”