But just how much should we be concerned, given that so many in this state have already been vaccinated or are on the verge of becoming eligible? The truth is, it’s hard to tell, even for the experts.
For now, the best thing we can do is assess the data we have about the variants. Here’s a quick look at what we know.
First, let’s look at the number of coronavirus cases where the variants have been discovered in Massachusetts so far. The CDC and the state say 977 cases of the British variant, 82 cases of the Brazilian variant, and 12 cases of the South African variant have been found. The number has risen since the state’s first case, a British variant, was announced on January 17.
The UK variant totals are the fourth highest in the United States, while the Brazilian variant totals are the second highest.
Here’s a state Department of Public Health provincial map of where the cases were found.
An important caveat: this data does not represent the actual number of variant cases. The genomic sequencing required to search for variants only happens on a limited number of tests. The numbers are “based on a sample of SARS-CoV-2 positive specimens and do not represent the total number … of cases that may be circulating,” the CDC says.
Next, let’s look at the share of different variants in the state. Data from CDC suggests that, as of mid-March, the UK variant accounted for nearly a fifth of the cases in the state, while two other official care variants, the B.1.427 and B.1.429, or California variants, come in second. . most common.
Again, the data from a limited number of tests comes with a caveat. The CDC notes, “Ratios of variants do not represent the total number that may be in circulation.”
Data from a very different source provides another warning that variants are lurking in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority has found the UK variant in wastewater from the Deer Island treatment plant.
Cambridge-based Biobot Analytics, the company doing the tests for the MWRA, says the testing has always been able to pick up coronaviruses, regardless of variant. But recently the company announced that it has added the ability to specifically discern when the sampling picked up the UK variant. The days when the variant was detected are shown in green on the map.
The focus on the British variant is understandable, given the predominance among the variants. It is also about 60 percent more contagious and 67 percent more deadly than the original form of the coronavirus, according to the most recent estimates.
At the national level, the CDC also reports the number of variant cases by state, broken down by the three best-known variants of care.
The same reservations regarding limited testing apply.
Using data gathered from genomic sequence tests, scientists at the Scripps Research Institute have calculated a national estimate of the proportion of coronavirus cases caused by variants of concern and variants of interest, a category of less concern.
This graph suggests that as of mid-March, worrying variants were involved in about one-third of all current coronavirus cases nationally.
The CDC’s efforts to monitor the spread of coronavirus variants came under fire early this year. But they have improved significantly in recent weeks and are expected to continue to improve, thanks in large part to the $ 1.75 billion in genomic sequencing funding in the stimulus package.
Still, testing the variants needs to be more systematic, comprehensive and nuanced, said Dr. Thomas Tsai, an assistant professor at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
However, the overall picture that emerges is clear. The British, South African and Brazilian variants are gaining ground in the United States, underscoring the need for people to continue to take precautions to prevent the spread, he said.
“The main message is fairly consistent. There is a growing prevalence of the variants of concern. And that justifies continued vigilance in the coming weeks, even as vaccine rollouts are ahead of schedule, ”said Tsai. “We’ve come a long way, but we’re still not out of the woods.”
Amanda Kaufman of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from Globe Wire Services has been used in this report.