New strains of COVID-19 emerge, health officials explain the virus variants

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State health officials are warning Minnesotans to limit travel, after new variants of the virus causing COVID-19 were detected in our state.

Late Monday, the Minnesota Department of Health announced the country’s first case of the Brazil P.1 variant was found in Minnesota. They said a Twin Cities metro resident became sick after traveling to Brazil.

"This is exactly the reason why, more than ever, we need to test, contact trace, quarantine, isolate and do the work that’s necessary," Gov. Tim Walz said Tuesday.

KSTP Medical Expert Dr. Archelle Georgiou said the Brazil variant is believed to be more contagious than the initial strain and may even be able to reinfect people who have already had COVID-19.

"The reason that it was even discovered is that there was an area in Brazil where they thought they had herd immunity, so they didn’t think they would have any more spikes of COVID and yet all of these were people getting sick," Georgiou said.

Georgiou said it is normal for viruses to mutate but the new strains present cause for concern.

"The COVID-19 virus is estimated to have about 4,000 different mutations from when it started. Most of those are nothing to worry about," Georgiou said. "But when there is a mutation or a few mutations within a new strain that change the behavior of the virus, that’s when we worry."

Over the past few months, several new strains have emerged across the world.

The UK variant was first detected in September 2020. There are now confirmed cases in 26 states, including eight cases in Minnesota. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this variant spreads more easily and quickly than other variants but there is no evidence that it causes more severe illness or increased risk of death.

MDH COVID-19 briefing: State health officials discuss new variants found in Minnesota, vaccine rollout

The South African variant, which has not been found yet in the U.S., was detected in October 2020.

The new Brazilian variant was first discovered in Brazil several weeks ago.

"There’s a lot we don’t know about these different virus strains and they’re all behaving a little differently. But one thing that we know they all have in common is that they have one mutation that makes them more transmissible, so it’s easier for the variant to spread from one person to the other," Dr. Georgiou explained.

Vaccine manufacturers believe the current COVID-19 vaccines will still protect against these new variants, but they may be slightly less effective. Moderna said it is developing booster shots that may help protect against emerging strains.

"We need to keep watching it and testing against it and making sure until we’ve got it beaten back, that we’re planning ahead and we’re being careful," said Moderna President Stephen Hoge.

Georgiou added, "It appears that this virus is just going to keep mutating and it’s going to stay one step ahead of us, so we are in a race to get vaccinated against it. If we get vaccinated quickly, that just gets us to a better baseline so we can handle any other strains that pop up."

The Minnesota Department of Health is urging people to limit travel during the pandemic, as the state tries to prevent the outbreak of new variants.

New international travel requirements also went into effect Tuesday. Anyone flying to the U.S. from another country (including U.S. citizens) must now present a negative COVID test taken within the previous three days or proof they have recovered from the virus in the last 90 days.

The Minnesota Department of Health recommends travelers test for COVID-19 three to five days after arrival and quarantine for at least seven days. They also recommend travelers get tested one to three days prior to domestic travel, that they restrict their activities for at least seven days upon return, and that they get tested for COVID-19 three to five days after arrival.