A new strain of the coronavirus — B117 — has been detected in five U.S. states and could be present in Nebraska, Gov. Pete Ricketts said in a press briefing Wednesday morning.

The B117 mutation, which was identified in the United Kingdom in September, is more contagious and more transmissible than the original SARS-CoV-2 strain, said Dr. Gary Anthone, chief medical officer at the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

Positive B117 tests have been detected in Colorado, California, Florida, New York and Georgia but, as of Wednesday morning, no cases had been reported in Nebraska. The state is actively monitoring for B117 cases, Ricketts said, but will not examine past COVID-19 specimens for the B117 variation.

Nebraska is in the early stages of administering vaccinations from both Moderna and Pfizer, and those vaccinations are said to also cover B117, the governor said.

“(The new strain) doesn’t increase mortality or seriousness but could lead to an increase in hospitalizations down the road,” Ricketts said. “The reason we are talking about this is to stress the need to continue the practice of wearing masks, keeping distance and washing hands. Hopefully we can keep this under control as we roll out our vaccinations.”

While no B117 variations have been detected in Nebraska, both Ricketts and Anthone said that because the mutation had been detected in Colorado, it’s possible that it had already spread to Nebraska, or at least the western part of the state.

Anthone said commercial labs could detect the B117 strain and that the Nebraska Public Health Lab is hoping to acquiring the capability to test for the new strain within the next few weeks.

The UK recently conducted a study in which 1,769 patients who contracted the original SARS-CoV-2 strain were compared with 1,769 patients who contracted B117.

Of the patients who were infected with the original strain, 26 were hospitalized, compared with 16 hospitalizations of patients who tested positive for B117, Anthone said. The death rate for B117 patients in this study was 0.9% while it was 0.7% for those infected with the original strain.

But where concern rises is with the increased transmission rate, Anthone said.

When in close contact with others, the transmission rate was 15% for B117 patients while it was just 10% for other COVID patients.

“This new strain is allowing mutated spiked proteins to attach to receptors easier than SARS-CoV-2,” Anthone said. “This is an opportune time for vaccines to come out since this mutant strain is showing more prevalence. It remains important for Nebraskans to be diligent in practicing proper social distancing, wearing masks and hand washing.”

Part of Ricketts’ update included current state hospitalization data. As of Wednesday morning, there were 515 patients with COVID-19, with 31% of staffed hospital beds, 32% of ICU beds and 72% of ventilators in Nebraska available.

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