UK strain rapidly spreading; experts holding breath over more dangerous P.1

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 31, 2021 6:16 AM CT | Published: March 30, 2021 12:44 PM CT

The U.K. variant, identified in Shelby County in early February, is quickly growing, a sign that it is 50% more contagious than the original SARS CoV-2 virus.

By mid-April, it is expected to be the dominant local strain.

But officials are equally as worried about the P.1 strain, 200% more contagious than SARS CoV-2 and resistant to the antibodies people develop from having the disease, and to a lesser extent, the antibodies the vaccine creates.

Highly contagious, resistant P.1 variant presents new challenges

“It creates havoc very quickly as it has done in many cities in Brazil,” said Dr. Manoj Jain said Tuesday, March 30. “It can evade the vaccine and can cause re-infection. That concerns us because people who have previous infection and those with vaccines could get disease.

“The efficacy (to the vaccine) is reduced, possibly by 50% by some calculations done theoretically, but we haven’t seen it on the ground yet,” said Jain, an infectious disease expert who is advising the city on pandemic issues.

The vaccine is effective against serious disease with the U.K. strain and likely the P.1 strain, but less is known about the latter.

One of the reasons is because in Brazil, where P.1 is ravaging local economies, there also is very little vaccine.

Four cases of P.1 were detected here last week. The people are in isolation and their contacts have been quarantined, but worry persists that the surveillance network may not be broad enough to find all the cases before P.1 also begins spreading exponentially.

“The U.K., B 1.1.7, has already caused community transmission,” Jain said. “About 50% of the cases that are positive are from that strain.

“In the case of P.1, it is barely seeding in our communities, so this is a time where we can act, drop back rapidly and contain.”

The health precautions people have been taking for more than a year are still the best defense, even with highly contagious variants.

Testing is critically important. The mutations are identified in labs processing the specimens. If they aren’t there, the surveillance breaks down.

“For every P.1 you identify, you probably have 30 more in the community,” said Dr. Jeff Warren.

The city has built a collaboration among doctors, hospitals, lab directors and the Shelby County Health Department, which are meeting three times a week to follow and discuss mutant strains.

Officials are reinforcing vigilance now as airports are processing large numbers of passengers and states are dropping mask mandates and reopening businesses.

“As we continue to vaccinate more people, that will give us additional assistance in fighting these strains, but we are certainly not out of the woods yet,” said David Sweat, epidemiologist and deputy director of the Shelby County Health Department.

The U.K. variant, which has closed down much of Europe, is the reason cases here, in decline since January, began leveling off. Officials expect case numbers to begin climbing again.

It is also the reason the positivity rate has risen a percentage point to 4.3% in the last four weeks.

“We’ve also seen that the number of people in the hospital, which had been declining consistently for some time, now has started to plateau and has actually started to increase once again,” Sweat said. 

ICU admissions are also rising.

“Now, does that mean we are headed into a fourth wave? It’s too soon to say. That is something that we are concerned about though, and what we are seeing occur in many communities,” Sweat said. 

In Shelby County, nearly 100,000 people are fully vaccinated. The city, which had made plans to close its five public vaccination sites through the Easter weekend, is now hoping to add slots.

“We’re evaluating how much vaccine we have on hand and how many sites we can open and when we might be able to open those, based on the availability of vaccine,” said Doug McGowen, chief operating officer for the City of Memphis.

“We’re doing an inventory now; we’ve added additional appointments this week. We’ll see where we stand, about the end of the day tomorrow (Wednesday),” he said.

Hundreds of appointments were still available Tuesday afternoon, a sign that uptake may have eroded. 

McGowen doesn’t know if people have decided doses will be plentiful down the road and are “taking their time” or don’t know that once the schedule fills up, the city often adds more slots.

To check on openings, go here

For now, the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine is being used by a number of clinics and dialysis centers but also by the church-sponsored pop-up sites. Information about the vaccine brand is on the link above, but no one is being encouraged to wait for a site to administer the J & J vaccine, McGowen said. 

Opinion: County mayor urges move beyond ‘vaccine skepticism’

On Monday, March 29, River City Capital Investment Corp., in partnership with the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis and Cummins Inc., began taking applications for $1.6 million in COVID-19 Care grants targeted to Black-owned small businesses and those in low-income neighborhoods.

Companies with annual revenue of less than $1 million are eligible for $20,000 grants.

Nationally, more than 40% of all Black businesses have closed due to the economic impact of the pandemic, said Babacar Thiaw, River City Capital Investment executive.

The grants will be distributed on a rolling basis as applications come in. For more information, visit rivercitycapital.org

The Shelby County Commission also set aside $2.5 million for hospitality and restaurant workers. Eligible people will received $1,000. For more information and to apply, go to this site

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coronavirus UK variant Brazilian variant
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers healthcare and higher education for The Daily Memphian.


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