Alaska in ‘race’ to vaccinate as public health officials learn more about emerging coronavirus mutations

Published: Jan. 21, 2021 at 6:38 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Public health officials in Alaska are carefully monitoring reports of coronavirus variants emerging in other countries.

Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink said during a public vaccine briefing Thursday that the state is performing genetic sequencing on 2-4% of its COVID-19 test samples that come back positive.

“We have not identified any of these major variants as of yet,” she said, noting that sequencing is time consuming and expensive work. “We are also working on prioritizing travel testing for sequencing.”

Alaska’s sequencers are on the lookout for three coronavirus variants that have been identified in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil and have the potential to make it more difficult to keep cases under control.

Chief of Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ Section of Epidemiology Dr. Joe McLaughlin said the U.K. variant is about 50% more transmissible between people.

“If you have a virus that’s 50% more effective at transmitting over time, it really is going to just result in an exponential increase in case counts, and that’s why these emerging strains are quite concerning to us,” he said.

McLaughlin said there are questions about whether the South African and Brazilian strains will impact the efficacy of the vaccine, but there is no evidence yet to support or disprove the concern.

“Really right now it’s sort of a race against these new emerging variants,” he said. “We really want to get as many Alaskans vaccinated as quickly as possible before these new variants start to take a foothold in the United States, and especially here in Alaska.”

All of the vaccine doses sent to the state for January have been allocated. Officials expect to know next week how many doses will arrive in February.

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