The state Department of Health on Thursday said it is proactively testing COVID-19 specimens to look for new strains that may be significantly more contagious or differ in other ways from earlier strains.
Recent variants first discovered in the United Kingdom and South Africa are spreading more easily and quickly than other variants and have already spread to other countries. The B1.1.7 variant, first detected in the U.K., has already reached the U.S. mainland and Canada.
The Hawaii State Laboratories Division began its molecular surveillance in June and to date has performed genome sequencing on nearly 700 samples of viral RNA, the DOH said.
Neither B1.1.7 nor B.1.351, the variant discovered in South Africa, has been found in Hawaii, but that does not mean they are not here or will not arrive in the future.
“There is no evidence these variants cause more severe illness or increase the risk of death, but research shows they spread much faster than the COVID-19 already found in Hawaii,” said Dr. Libby Char, director of the DOH. “These new strains remind us how important it is to avoid large gatherings, wear masks, and practice physical distancing as we usher in the New Year.”
The DOH is collaborating with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to detect new variants of COVID-19 and contain their spread. The CDC has personnel in Hawaii to support investigation of viral variants should they be found.
“We are monitoring the situation closely,” said Dr. Edward Desmond, director of the State Laboratories Division. “So far there is nothing to suggest that COVID-19 vaccines are ineffective against the new variants, but we still have a lot to learn about them.”