New coronavirus variants seem to be cropping up everywhere. There’s one from the U.K., which is more contagious and already circulating in the United States. There’s one from South Africa, which is forcing Moderna and Pfizer to reformulate their COVID-19 vaccines and create “booster” shots, just to make sure the vaccines maintain their efficacies.
But for some scientists, the most worrying variant might be the newest one. A variant called P.1, which emerged in early December in Manaus, Brazil, and by mid-January had already caused a massive resurgence in cases across the city of 2 million people.
On Monday, officials detected the first confirmed case of P.1 in the U.S., specifically in Minnesota. The state Department of Health picked up the case by randomly sequencing 50 nasal swabs from positive patients each week. The person infected with P.1. had previously traveled to Brazil.
“If you were to ask me right now, what’s most concerning of all the things that I’ve heard so far, it’s the fact that they are reporting a sudden increase in cases in Manaus, Brazil,” virus expert Jeremy Luban at the University of Massachusetts told NPR two weeks ago before the variant arrived in the United States. “Manaus already had 75% of people infected [in the spring of last year].”
The concern with P.1 is twofold: Scientists don’t understand why the variant has spread so explosively in Brazil, and the variant carries a particularly dangerous set of mutations.