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UK, California COVID-19 variants found in Boise-area wastewater

Officials say the level of variant virus found were low - with each version making up about 2% of the viruses sequenced.

BOISE, Idaho — Testing of wastewater from several Ada County cities has identified the presence of two variants of the virus that causes COVID-19, officials announced Wednesday.

Idaho health officials have been warning that the variants, first discovered in California and the United Kingdom, would likely be in the Gem State soon, if they were not already.

At this point, not a lot is known about the California variant.

"We don’t know at this point whether or not the California variant is more infectious than the commonly circulating COVID viruses," CDH Communicable Disease Control Manager Kimberly Link said.

It's also not known if the California variant is more deadly. The wastewater samples were submitted from Boise, Eagle, and Garden City.

"It’s an equalizer, we’re able to test the whole community in one snapshot and not rely on the individual clinical data," City of Boise Environmental Manager Haley Falconer said. "I think those two things together are really powerful in understanding what is going on in the community."

Officials say the level of variant virus found was low - with each version making up about 2% of the viruses sequenced.

"The fact that we’re finding it at a point when it’s at very low levels of 2% within wastewater, gives us an opportunity for prevention," Link said.

Idaho has not yet detected the presence of either variant in any individual who has tested positive for COVID-19. Scientists say the variant virus may spread more quickly or be more contagious than the original strain, but it is not yet clear whether the variants will mean more serious illness or an increased chance of death in those who catch them.

"While we haven't detected the B.1.1.7 (U.K.) or the CAL.20C variants in clinical samples yet, we have presumed the variants were circulating in Idaho," Dr. Christopher Ball, bureau chief for the Idaho Bureau of Laboratories, said in a statement on Wednesday. "We are grateful to the City of Boise for doing this important work."

Ball said the Bureau of Laboratories is on track to sequence SARS-CoV-2 samples in-house by the end of the month, "which will both speed up the time to results and expand the number of samples in our strain sequencing program."

Meanwhile, according to Ball, the bureau is working with clinical labs around the state to receive samples for sequencing. 

"To date, 239 Idaho SARS-CoV-2 sequencing samples have been characterized in public databases," he said. "We look forward to having more robust and local sequencing capabilities in the coming weeks."

Boise has been using wastewater testing since May 2020 to monitor the spread of the virus. 

This type of testing measures the quantity of SARS-COV-2 in wastewater, but cannot tell researchers how many people are currently infected with COVID-19. No personal data is collected in the testing, officials said.

The two variants were detected in samples submitted on Jan. 25 and Jan. 30, when case counts in Ada County were higher. As cases drop, wastewater sequencing becomes more difficult. 

"One of the reasons why they selected a sample back from late January was that our cases were higher then in the community," said City of Boise Data Strategist Kyle Patterson. "The higher the case level in the community the easier it is to sequence and pull out the virus genetic material."

While the city has been testing the wastewater since spring, it only recently started doing deep sequencing to see if they can identify the different variants.

"As the pandemic has kind of evolved and changed and the needs for information have changed, we’ve tried to do the same thing," Patterson said. "This type of testing is really a game-changer around COVID-19."

Boise Mayor Lauren McLean said the analysis shows the need to "remain vigilant" against COVID-19.

"I'm grateful we have a wastewater testing program, and that it could tell us that these variants are indeed in Boise so that we are reminded, again, that we aren't out of the woods yet," McLean said in a statement. "We'll get through this, and our community will recover, if we remain vigilant in maintaining our distance, wearing masks, and following other health protocols."

At KTVB, we’re focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the virus. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: www.ktvb.com/coronavirus.

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