Vaccines available in the U.S. have been found to be effective against severe illness for all known variants. (Photo courtesy of Ochsner Health)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has sequenced seven cases of the P.1 COVID variant in Louisiana as of Tuesday, according to data uploaded to a research database. P.1, also known as the Brazilian variant, has circulated for weeks in Texas and Mississippi, but was only confirmed in Louisiana last week.

All of the cases are from several weeks ago, and were only uploaded to the database over the weekend.

The Louisiana Department of Health first announced that two P.1 cases had been confirmed in the state last Thursday. According to its press release, one was diagnosed in the New Orleans region, and the other in Southwest Louisiana.

LDH did not respond to questions about the newly sequenced cases.

As of last week, state officials said that about one-third of COVID cases in the state are due to another variant, B.1.1.7 — also called the U.K. variant — which is more infectious and more deadly than earlier strains that began circulating in the country in early 2020. Resurgent outbreaks in the upper Midwest and parts of the Northwest have been attributed in part to the spread of variant COVID cases.

P.1 is estimated to be about 50 percent more infectious than the early virus. The main cause for concern, however, is that it’s more adept at reinfecting recovered COVID patients. 

“That’s what it evolved to do,” said Jeremy Kamil, a virologist at LSU-Health Sciences Center Shreveport, referring to the fact that the virus arose in a population that had already recovered from widespread COVID outbreaks.

But, he said, “if you’ve had the vaccine, it’s not too concerning.” The vaccines are highly effective against hospitalization and death for all variants. But the spread of the variant is likely to prolong transmission of the virus among the unvaccinated population.

As of publication, it’s not clear where the other five cases had been diagnosed. The data was not uploaded with information on the parish or region where the cases were diagnosed. All seven cases were diagnosed between April 7 and April 15. Of the five most recently confirmed cases, one was made public last Thursday, two on Saturday, and two on Monday.

All the cases were uploaded to a research database called GISAID, which houses the vast majority of COVID genomic sequences, and which gives access to scientists and journalists who agree to its terms of use.

Each case is available on GISAID along with information on the diagnostic lab, the sequencing lab, and the full genomic sequence of the virus.

All of the P.1 variants were sequenced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two of the samples were collected by the Louisiana Offices of Public Health, and the rest by private companies.

Kamil has been heavily involved in sequencing efforts for much of northern Louisiana, and he is in close communication with the CDC’s sequencing team. He said that the lack of geographic data is the result of CDC policies, which have directed funding to national testing and sequencing companies, and which don’t publish parish-level data.

“The Louisiana Department of Public Health is a great organization, but they’re not staffed for that,” he said, arguing that the responsibility should fall on the organizations producing sequences.

The CDC did not respond to questions on its policies.

“They’re not sharing useful data,” he said. “Most Americans want to know if there’s a scary outbreak in their neighborhood, just like they’d like to know if there’s a tornado. It doesn’t help to know there’s a tornado risk in Louisiana, it helps to know if it’s in Jefferson Parish.”

However, Dr. Susan Hassig, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Tulane University, said that she’s not sure if local policymakers would actually use more detailed data on variant cases. 

“I would like to think that knowledge would make a difference to people, but that boat seems to have already sailed,” she said. “The explosion of B.1.1.7 doesn’t seem to have made any difference to any governor in the country.”

But, she said, she thinks they should. 

“It’s a different calculus now, but it’s not clear that has really registered with everyone.” Where state policymakers have generally been making decisions based on two-week trend lines of cases and hospitalizations, she said, “I would argue that it should be one week. With a higher transmissibility, you should respond almost before you’re sure there’s a problem. And that’s a problem for people making policy decisions.”

This story has been updated with comments from Dr. Susan Hassig.