Maryland health officials have identified at least one case of the COVID-19 “delta plus” variant in the state.
The strain is a relative of the delta variant, identified by British scientists last month. Because it isn’t a variant of interest or concern, it has not yet been officially named after a letter of the Greek alphabet, like other worrisome variants.
Scientists are monitoring the delta-related variant — known as AY.4.2 — to see if it might spread more easily or be more deadly than previous versions of the coronavirus. In a recent report, U.K. officials said this variant makes up 6% of all analyzed COVID-19 cases in the country and is “on an increasing trajectory.”
In a statement about Maryland’s discovery of AY.4.2, state Department of Health spokesman Andy Owen said: “COVID-19 lineages are always evolving, and the state remains vigilant for any potential variants of concern.”
“To ensure that we always understand which variants are circulating in the state, we aim to sequence at least 10% of samples across the state each week,” Owen wrote in the statement.
For the four weeks ending on Oct. 2, Oct. 9, Oct. 16 and Oct. 23, the state sequenced 14.89% of positive COVID tests. Of those, 99.67% were the delta variant.
The AY.4.2 variant has two mutations in the spike protein, which helps the coronavirus invade the body’s cells. These changes have been seen in other versions of the virus since the pandemic started, but some haven’t spread very far, said Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London.
The delta variant remains “by far the most dominant variant in terms of global circulation,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead on COVID-19, at a public session this week.
”Delta is dominant, but delta is evolving,” said Van Kerkhove, adding that the more the virus circulates, the greater the chance it has to mutate.
The U.N. health agency is currently tracking 20 variations of the delta variant. AY.4.2 is “one to watch because we have to continuously keep an eye on how this virus is changing,” she said.
In the U.S., the delta variant now accounts for nearly all COVID-19 cases. The newer “delta plus” variant has been spotted “on occasion,” but it’s not yet a concern, health officials said. Aside from Maryland, it’s been reported in California, Florida, Massachusetts, Nevada, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Washington state, plus the District of Columbia, according to CBS News.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.