A second American tested positive for the new highly-mutated BA.2.86 Covid variant that has been causing global alarm over its rapid transmission.
The positive case was detected in an asymptomatic patient in Virginia who was tested August 10.
Scientists who identified the case in a database that contains test samples from travelers entering the US said the individual had recently returned to the States from Japan.
Researchers are concerned about the variant, also spotted in Michigan last week, because they say it looks more like the original Omicron strain and unlike currently circulating strains, raising the risk it could spark a fresh wave of infections.
The positive case was detected in an asymptomatic patient in Virginia who was tested August 10 (Image of former Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, left, watching a Covid testing center being set up in 2020)
Hospitalizations across the US have risen for the fifth week in a row, but they are also barely a third of the levels from this time the previous year
Covid deaths remain static at present after having risen four percent in a week. They are hovering around record low levels
The discovery of the mutant strain in two states suggests it may be spreading in other areas undetected.
Only a fraction of positive swabs are tested for variants, meaning many cases with this strain are likely going undiagnosed.
Dr Aaron Glatt, a medic at Mount Sinai in New York, said the fact these two cases had cropped up meant it was ‘certainly possible’ the virus was now in other areas of the US.
Asked how many cases there may be nationwide, he said there may be ‘many more’ than tens of infections already in the country.
This case marks the second to be spotted in the US, after an older patient with a mild illness in Michigan was also diagnosed with the strain. They were not hospitalized.
Worldwide, seven cases have been detected to date across four countries — including Israel, Denmark and the UK.
Amid growing alarm over the variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have both said they are tracking the mutant strain.
The case was detected in America’s Traveler Based Genomic Surveillance Program.
This analyzes positive samples taken from passengers who have been tested for Covid to check for variants.
Travelers are also surveyed on their travel history and whether they have any symptoms.
The program operates at seven airports — including Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC — with the CDC saying it can act as an ‘early warning system’ for which variants are entering the US.
Former FDA director Dr Scott Gottlieb warned this weekend he was ‘pretty concerned’ about the new strain.
He warned that the strain may be more transmissible than other currently circulating Covid variants.
But added there was no data to suggest it was more likely to cause severe disease or death than other variants. Previously, the virus has evolved to become more transmissible but less deadly.
Nationally, the most up-to-date official data shows hospitalizations are rising — albeit from record low levels.
There were 12,613 admissions in which the patient tested positive for Covid in the week up to August 12, marking the fifth week in a row hospitalizations for the virus had risen and an increase of a fifth on the week prior.
But this was still barely a third of the levels recorded at the same time last year, when there were about 40,000 admissions every week.
Deaths remain static with 479 reported in the latest week that data is available, July 22, compared to 484 in the previous seven-day spell.
Lionsgate, a Hollywood studio, has ordered nearly half of its employees to start wearing face masks once again. The rule is in place until further notice at their building in Santa Monica
Morris Brown College, a private liberal arts school in Atlanta, Georgia, has also ordered staff and students to wear masks again in corridors and lecture halls.
A staff member offers a face mask to a man at Chinese Hospital in San Francisco, back in August 2021 during the pandemic
There is no official data on Covid cases because only around 40,000 tests are being carried out per day.
But test positivity — that is, the share of those tests coming back positive — has doubled in the past month.
There are also concerns over another Covid variant — EG.5 — which is dominant in the US and estimated to be behind at least a fifth of all infections.
Scientists say this strain is more transmissible and could be driving an uptick in cases. But they caution it may be overtaken by BA.X.
Amid more alarm bells ringing over Covid, there are now signs that some organizations are starting to bring back face masks.
Yesterday, Lionsgate — behind franchises Saw and the Hunger Games — announced employees would now need to wear face masks at their office in Santa Monica, California.
They said staff would also need to self-test before heading to the office, and let their managers know whether they have tested positive or have symptoms of the disease.
Lionsgate said the rules were in response to positive cases emerging among employees.
They followed in the footsteps of Morris Brown College, a private liberal arts school in Atlanta, Georgia, which has also ordered staff and students to wear masks again in corridors and lecture halls.
The college said the rules would be in place for two weeks and have been triggered because of ‘reports of positive cases among students’.
Students are also being told to maintain social distancing and all parties and large gatherings have been banned.
The number of Covid cases in Georgia have increased for three weeks in a row, but overall, the number of infections and hospitalizations remains low.