The "double mutant" variant of COVID-19 that has overwhelmed India's healthcare system has been found in Minnesota, with the state health department finding six cases of the B.1.617 variant through genomic sequencing.
Speaking Tuesday, Kris Ehresmann, the director of infectious disease at the Minnesota Department of Health, mistakenly described the variant as the B.1.651 strain, which also originated in India. But a health department spokesperson confirmed to Bring Me The News on Wednesday that "there was an error" in Ehresmann's comments.
"While there is a B.1.651 variant from India, the few variants with India lineage we have in MN are the B.1.617 variety," the spokesperson said via email.
The B.1.617 variant is believed to be behind a horrifying surge in India that has seen total cases rise to over 20 million, more than a third of them popping up in the past several weeks.
"According to the World Health Organization, this variant was first identified in India last December. The World Health Organization has described it as a 'variant of interest,' suggesting it may have mutations that would make the virus more transmissible, causing more severe disease or evading vaccine immunity," said Ehresmann.
The six confirmed B.1.617 infections have impacted children to people aged in their 60s, according to Ehresmann. All of the cases involve three households, with symptom onset developing in April.
"Two of the households had members with known association with travel. One of these six cases was hospitalized," said Ehresmann.
The dominant variant in Minnesota is currently B.117, also known as the U.K. variant, which is believed to now be responsible for the majority of current infections in the country. The health department has also confirmed a total of 65 cases of the P.1 variant (Brazil) and 88 cases of B.1351 (South Africa).
These are referred to as "variants of concern," which is used to describe variants where there is evidence that they are more transmissible, can lead to more serious disease, and can evade antibodies in those previously infected or reduce the effectiveness of vaccines.
"Variants of interest" are a step down from "variants of concern" in that they have genetic markers associated with changes that has the potential to make it more transmissible and severe, or reduce vaccine efficacy, but this hasn't yet been confirmed.
Traveling poses variant risk
The situation in India has overwhelmed the nation of 1.4 billion people. India reported a single-day record 3,780 deaths Tuesday and 382,315 new cases. Reports out of the crisis-stricken country show lines of people at crematoriums and hospitals turning away patients as they run out of oxygen to treat those with critical infections.
Critics of India Prime Minister Narendra Modi point to the fact that the country was still hosting massive festivals, campaign events, and live sports as recently as last month, and has refused to impost national lockdown measures, as contributing to the virus' spread.
It is nonetheless a prime example of the danger variants pose, and why Ehresmann says it's still very important to follow federal travel guidance, regardless if you are vaccinated or not.
"It's a reminder of how potent this virus is and how careful the world needs to be, even as we make progress in vaccination in places like Minnesota," said Ehresmann.
"The virus is still out there circulating and mutating," Ehresmann said. "And to go back to the forest fire metaphor that we've used before, in many parts of the world, it's burning hotter than it is here. That makes it very important to be cautious and aware before traveling."
Travel from India the U.S. has been restricted by the federal government, though American citizens and permanent residents can still return to the U.S. from India. The CDC continues to discourage people, especially unvaccinated people, from traveling internationally.
The CDC recommends that fully vaccinated people get tested for COVID 3-5 days after travel, while those who are not fully vaccinated should be tested 1-3 days before travel, and 3-5 days after returning. Upon return, travelers are urged to quarantine until their test results are in.
Tuesday was the first day since Mar. 22 that Minnesota reported fewer than 1,000 cases, though health commissioner Jan Malcolm says "there is still an extremely high level of virus circulating all over the state."