News Release

PHILADELPHIA — Evidence of infection by the highly transmissible B.1.1.7 variant of the COVID-19 coronavirus first identified in the United Kingdom has been found in a southeast Pennsylvania resident.

COVID Lab
Pascha Hokama, a research assistant of Microbiology, performs SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequencing in the Bushman lab. Here she is pictured in front of the MiSeq, a genomic sequencer, holding a chip used for sequencing.

Following an investigation by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health and the Bucks County Health Department, a sample was sent to the lab of Frederic Bushman, PhD, chair of Microbiology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, for genetic sequencing. The health departments announced that the variant was found in a woman in her 50s who began experiencing symptoms the last week of December and was briefly hospitalized. She is currently recovering. She is a resident of Philadelphia and Bucks County. This is the second case of B.1.1.7 variant COVID-19 in Pennsylvania.

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said, “While it is still not proven that the B.1.1.7 variant is more transmissible than other variants of the COVID-19 coronavirus, we are concerned that it is present in Philadelphia.  Everyone in the area should take this information as a reminder to be even more consistent in wearing masks and keeping distance from others.”

Bucks County Health Department Director Dr. David Damsker said it is not unusual for a virus to change and mutate. “We are not overly concerned about this development because all available evidence shows that the existing vaccines are effective against this variant,” Damsker said. “So long as that continues to be the case, we will treat this variant the same as our other cases.”

bushman team
Members of the Bushman lab, led by Frederic Bushman, PhD, chair of Microbiology, are working with the Philadelphia Department of Health to sequence samples from COVID-19 patients in an effort to uncover SARS-CoV-2 variants in the community.

Bushman’s research team began working with the Philadelphia Department of Health at the start of the pandemic last spring. As they began sequencing SARS-CoV-2 whole genomes from hospitalized patients at Penn Medicine in an effort to understand the virus and its spread in the community, they maintained contact with the department.

“Collaboration between our researchers and public health officials is more important than ever so that we can use science to drive decision-making to protect our communities, and move as quickly as possible to meet new challenges like this one,” Bushman said. “I don’t think it’s surprising to have found the variant here, as it has already been detected elsewhere in Pennsylvania and in many locations across the U.S. All these detections support the idea that the virus is more infectious, and reinforces that we need to take the precautions we know work — wear masks, social distance, don’t go to crowded places, and get a COVID-19 vaccine when it is available to you.”

Bushman noted that sequencing the whole viral genome is a technologically complicated thing to do, from complex processes like purifying the RNA to DNA, to the need for sophisticated equipment that can perform next generation sequencing. His lab decided early on in the pandemic they wanted to set this up and to help by providing this kind of data.

As the U.K. strain began to be identified in the United States, the Philadelphia Department of Health identified a high priority sample—the Bucks County COVID-19 patient with ties to the U.K. Based on their already established collaboration, the city health department asked Bushman’s lab to sequence the viral genome from the sample to determine whether it was the UK strain. Bushman’s team found that the sequence contained 22/23 of the diagnostic substitutions characteristic of the UK strain, including all the substitutions in the Spike protein hypothesized to make the variant more infectious.

The team also shared results from a paper on viral genome sequences and analysis from the first wave, Later the question arose of whether the UK strain, proposed to be more infectious, was in our area. The DOH folks identified a high priority sample—an individual who became positive after contact with someone who had become positive after recent travel to England. We offered to sequence the viral genome from the sample to determine whether it was the UK strain. The sequence contained 22/23 of the diagnostic substitutions characteristic of the UK strain, including all the substitutions in the Spike protein hypothesized to make the variant more infectious.

Bushman’s lab will continue sequencing new samples from COVID-19 patients at Penn Medicine, the health department, and other groups, and be on the lookout for new variants and mutations.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection reports that more research about this new variant is ongoing, but current data seems to show that it is more easily transmitted between people than the current, dominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States. Cases have been reported in several states. It is believed that this strain of the virus is susceptible to the COVID-19 vaccine. It is difficult to identify this strain of the virus because it requires genetic sequencing testing.

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health reports the latest information on the coronavirus in Philadelphia and the City’s response on their COVID-19 website. The Bucks County Health Department has information on the coronavirus and their response on their COVID-19 website.

Topic:

Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $8.9 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top medical schools in the United States for more than 20 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $496 million awarded in the 2020 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities include: the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center—which are recognized as one of the nation’s top “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S. News & World Report—Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Medicine Princeton Health; and Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional facilities and enterprises include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, Penn Medicine at Home, Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, among others.

Penn Medicine is powered by a talented and dedicated workforce of more than 44,000 people. The organization also has alliances with top community health systems across both Southeastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey, creating more options for patients no matter where they live.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2020, Penn Medicine provided more than $563 million to benefit our community.

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