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What You Need To Know About The ‘UK Variant’ Of COVID-19

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The first confirmed positive case of the so-called “U.K. variant” in Utah is a man who tested positive last month. And he caught in the state, meaning the variant — while still new — has been in the state for weeks.

The fact that COVID-19 has mutated is not a surprise. It is what viruses do to survive, “the way they stay ahead of our immune system,” according to Dr. Stephen Goldstein, an expert in virus evolution in the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Utah.

Goldstein said, “most of those mutations are meaningless.” But sometimes, “mutations will come up that give a variant that has that mutation some kind of advantage. And when that’s the case, that variant can take off.”

In this case, the so-called U.K. variant of COVID-19 allows virus particles “to bind more tightly to our cells than it otherwise can,” Goldstein said.

“It’s going to increase the likelihood that when it sticks onto your cell, it’s then going to get in,” he said, meaning it may take less virus to get someone sick. “Maybe you don’t need to get exposed to 500 virus particles. Maybe now 250 is enough, or something like that.”

In other words, it is easier to get sick with the new variant. But it still spreads the same way. The symptoms are the same and, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, “don’t appear to be more severe or more deadly.”

Still, it means more infections, which will lead to more people in hospital ICUs, which Dunn warned are above capacity. That’s why she’s again calling for Utahns to step up.

“It is more transmissible. It’s more contagious than the other variants of COVID. Now more than ever we really need to be practicing good public health practice by wearing a face mask, staying home when we’re sick, avoiding large gatherings and physical distancing as much as we can,” she said.

“Do everything. Use every one of these tools we have in our arsenal, whether if for you that’s getting vaccinated, get vaccinated,” Goldstein said. “If you can’t get vaccinated yet, wear the best mask you can.”

It’s difficult to know how widespread the variant is in Utah. Identifying the new variant takes more than a typical COVID-19 test. It requires the test and then DNA sequencing at the lab. But the state is only sequencing about 10% of positive test results.

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