COVID-19 variants

Viruses constantly change through mutation so it not unexpected that multiple variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 have now been detected globally and in some parts of the United States. These new viral variants are highly concerning because they seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to a rise in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Alaska's Public Health Laboratories are searching for these variants as part of their lab work.

On this page:

Multiple variants are circulating globally

Variants of concern have been identified in Alaska (PDF) and multiple COVID-19 variants of concern are circulating globally:

Alaska's Public Health Laboratories continue to monitor for variants of concern and publishes updates:

Alaska's Public Health Laboratories have been sequencing  the SARS-CoV-2 viral genome from positive cases around the state since March 2020 – early in the pandemic – to monitor circulating strains in Alaska. Alaska's Public Health Laboratories also participate in a nationwide surveillance effort, submitting positive samples for sequencing to CDC's national genomic surveillance program in  an effort to monitor circulating strains at the national level and learn more about COVID-19.

This information can help scientists better understand the different clades of the disease, essentially like branches of a family tree, to help scientists understand how the virus is spreading and changing over time. Knowing more about the genetics of the virus can also help biomedical researchers design better therapies to help fight COVID-19.

Late last fall, when significant COVID-19 variants began to be detected globally, the state labs directed sequencing efforts to look for the presence of these variants in Alaska. Lab staff routinely review results of diagnostic tests for all positive COVID-19 cases to identify samples that have a genetic signature indicating it could potentially be a variant strain.
These samples are then sequenced through a laboratory process known as Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) to examine the viral genome and determine if it displays the genetic changes, or mutations, consistent with the variant.

Alaska's Public Health Laboratories process about a third of all COVID-19 test specimens collected in Alaska. To help ensure that we're not missing the variant in samples analyzed by other laboratories, the public health lab sequencing effort also examines a portion of positive tests from other laboratories. Samples are sequenced from as many different geographic regions as possible, to ensure a widespread search for variants. 

Compared to many other states, Alaska's sequencing efforts are relatively robust. To date, roughly 4% to 5% of cases have been sequenced. This is four times higher than the national average for COVID-19 sequencing and on par with efforts in the United Kingdom.

What it means and what you can do

Public health officials are studying these variants to learn more to control their spread. Specifically, we are trying to understand:

  • How widely these new variants have spread and whether they are present in certain geographic regions.
  • How the disease caused by these new variants differ from the dominant strains. Do the variants spread more easily, or cause milder or more severe disease?
  • How these variants affect existing diagnostic assays, medicines, therapies and COVID-19 vaccines.

So far, there is no evidence indicating the two authorized COVID-19 vaccines (Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) are not effective against these three variants. However, the B.1.351 and P.1 variants, do contain mutations that may affect their ability to be recognized by antibodies. More research will be needed to determine what effect these variants may have on the efficacy of the immune response generated by the COVID-19 vaccines.

If these variant strains take hold in Alaska, the virus could spread faster and more easily, creating a rise in COVID-19 cases and increasing the chances that the virus will continue to mutate and spread. Here's what Alaskans can do to help:

  • Continue to wear masks, even if you have been vaccinated. Until researchers know more, it's possible the vaccine will protect you from getting sick but may not prevent you from spreading the virus to others.
  • Continue to practice physical distancing and keep social circles small. Postpone indoor gatherings until a safer time.
  • Wash your hands often. Clean and sanitize common areas and surfaces.
  • Get tested if you feel sick, if you have been exposed to COVID-19 and before and after you travel.

Testing and travel

Testing before and after travel – and staying home after you travel – can help detect COVID-19, including variant strains, and prevent the virus from spreading to others. If you are traveling into Alaska from a foreign country, you are advised to provide a negative COVID-19 test result or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 before travel.

Visit the CDC webpage for information.

Travelers to Alaska must follow the state's Health Advisory No. 2 which requires travelers take a test with 72 hours of departure and practice strict social distancing for five days after arrival into Alaska.

A second test taken between 5-14 days after arrival is recommended.

Foreign nationals traveling from certain countries may be excluded from traveling into the United States to slow the spread of COVID-19. For a current list of these countries, visit the CDC webpage.

For more information