(April 13, 2021) Nantucket health officials are waiting to find out if a fully-vaccinated person who tested positive for COVID-19 has the South African or Brazilian variant of that virus. The so-called UK variant has already been found on-island.
“We expected the variants to get here, but we expected to be able to hold off a little longer,” health director Roberto Santamaria said Tuesday.
An e-mail update sent out Tuesday by Jerico Mele, the town’s human services director, warns that, “It is now almost certain that there is an immunity-compromising variant spreading on the island. Be Aware: This variant is confirmed to break natural immunity. If you have COVID this variant can infect you. This variant appears to break vaccine immunity. Even if you are fully vaccinated two-plus weeks, this variant can infect you.”
Santamaria, however, said there is no confirmation that either the South African or Brazilian variants are on-island.
Santamaria said his team is working on the assumption that the South African or Brazilian variant is on island, but stressed that the original message was a leap in logic since there is no confirmation yet.
“There is a strict medical definition between probable and confirmed,” he said. “This had been diagnosed, but now have to confirm it via lab tests.”
The PCR swab was sent off to the Board Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for testing that requires genetic fingerprinting.
He added that while health officials are working on the assumption that the South African and Brazilian variants are now on-island, there have been no positive tests, either from the patient or from the BioBot sewer testing of the town’s wastewater. That testing indicated the presence of the UK variant three weeks ago.
Mele sent out a revised message later Tuesday afternoon.
“This is not a new variant being identified, this is an infection of individuals that have both had COVID and been fully vaccinated, then developed symptoms and tested positive for COVID in a PCR test,” it read. “It is confirmation that what is probably the South African variant is present on the island, as expected, and that individuals vaccinated or possessing natural immunity from previous infections have been reinfected. Vaccine is still effective in preventing hospitalization or death, but not necessarily illness or transmission.”
Santamaria said the jury is still out on whether the South African variant can circumvent immunity elicited by either natural infection or vaccination. Most studies agree with his assessment. The Times of Israel, however, reported this week that a study by a team from Tel Aviv University found the South African variant is more adept at “breaking through” the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine than other variants are. The study’s main downside was a small sample size.
Santamaria said that vaccines still appear to provide protection from serious illness. Asked if a confirmation of the variants on-island would override the vaccination levels now being approached, he said, “We don’t think we’ll be back to square one. The vaccines are still effective against severe illness. But definitely they will make our efforts a lot harder.”
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