B.1.1.7 COVID-19 Variant Undetected in 15 Countries Before Discovery

April 1, 2021
Killian Meara

Investigators discovered that the variant was in many other countries before it was discovered and created a tool to help detect emerging variants in the future.

A recent study published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases has discovered that the B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19, which was initially discovered in the United Kingdom, was unknowingly spreading for months before its initial discovery. The research was conducted by investigators from the University of Texas at Austin.

"By the time we learned about the U.K. variant in December, it was already silently spreading across the globe," Lauren Ancel Meyers, the director of the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at The University of Texas at Austin and a professor of integrative biology said. "We estimate that the B117 variant probably arrived in the U.S. by October of 2020, two months before we knew it existed."

For the study, the investigators analyzed data from 15 countries and estimated the chance that travelers from the United Kingdom had introduced the variant to the countries between September 22 and December 7 of 2020.

Findings from the study showed that the COVID-19 variant was almost definitely in all of the 15 countries in the study by mid-November and in the United States by mid-October.

"This study highlights the importance of laboratory surveillance," Meyers said. "Rapid and extensive sequencing of virus samples is critical for early detection and tracking of new variants of concern."

As part of the study, the investigators also developed a novel tool which can be used in the planning for genetic sequencing and help to detect the presence of viral variants. The tool is an online calculator that indicated the number of virus samples which must be sequenced in order to detect a novel variant as they emerge.

As an example, approximately 3,000 positive specimens per week would be needed to be sequenced in order to detect emerging variants by the time they are causing 1 out of every 1,000 new cases.

"Health officials are looking for better ways to manage the unpredictability of this virus and future variants," Spencer Woody, a postdoctoral fellow at the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium said. "Our new calculator determines how many positive SARS-CoV-2 specimens must be sequenced to ensure that new threats are identified as soon as they start spreading."