Four COVID variants currently circulating in the U.S. are becoming "much more prominent" in Illinois as the state battles what health officials say is a rise in cases, data from a state lab has found.
Reditus Laboratories said recent testing revealed "several trending variants" had been identified in Illinois, "causing growing concern" as the variants are believed to be more contagious.
“The variants are becoming much more prominent,” Reditus CEO Dr. Aaron Rossi said. “This is causing growing concern of experts and we need to identify the variants and make sure the public is aware.”
The central Illinois lab said it conducted variant testing on more than 300 COVID-19 samples collected during the month of March. Among the variants found during that test were the U.K. variant known as B.1.1.7, the South African variant called B.1351, the Brazil variant known as P.1 and a fourth variant out of California called B.147/429.
The most prominent variant in Illinois was the U.K. variant.
The lab's data matches variant monitoring reported by the Illinois Department of Public Health. According to the state data, more than 900 cases involving variants have been reported so far in the state, though not all positive COVID tests are being tested for variants.
The number of cases in the state so far include:
"Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time," IDPH's website states. "Sometimes new variants emerge and disappear. Other times, new variants emerge and persist."
The lab indicated particular concern surrounding the Brazil strain, calling it "the most concerning of all identified variants due to resistance of vaccines, potentially increased pathogenicity, and increased levels of transmissibility than the original strain."
According to IDPH, the Brazil variant "contains a set of additional mutations that may affect its ability to be recognized by antibodies."
Samples from the lab that were identified as the Brazil variant came from patients in the central Illinois area, Reditus said, including the area of Peoria, Pekin, Morton and Bloomington.
At the same time, IDPH said the UK variant "spreads more easily and quickly than other variants" and that experts in the UK believe the variant could be "associated with an increased risk of death compared to other variant viruses." Still, more studies are needed, officials said.
The South African variant shares similar mutations with the U.K. variant but emerged separately, health officials added.
Little has been reported from IDPH about the California variant first discovered last summer.
"More study is needed about the infectiousness and severity of this variant," the website states.
IDPH warned that the four variants "seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19," and could eventually lead to additional hospitalizations and potential deaths.
So far, experts believe the COVID vaccines currently being administered in the U.S. offer some protection against the variants, but studies are ongoing.
Pfizer's latest study results suggested that the vaccine is effective against the coronavirus variant that first emerged in South Africa.
“These data also provide the first clinical results that a vaccine can effectively protect against currently circulating variants, a critical factor to reach herd immunity and end this pandemic for the global population," Ugur Sahin, CEO and co-founder of BioNTech, said in a statement.
But according to a new Israeli study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, the same variant was able to evade some of the protection of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
In mid-March, CNBC reported the J&J shot demonstrated 64% efficacy in South Africa, where the more contagious and virulent B.1.351 variant is rapidly spreading.
Boosters and new versions of vaccines that target the variants are already being explored.
Pfizer-BioNTech is testing a third booster shot of its vaccine on fully vaccinated people.
"The flexibility of our proprietary mRNA vaccine platform allows us to technically develop booster vaccines within weeks, if needed," Sahin said in a release.
Moderna is also testing a potential third dose of its current vaccine, and a possible booster shot specifically targeting the South Africa variant.
Meanwhile, Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky said during an interview with CNBC's "Squawk Box" earlier this month that the company is well-positioned to adapt its vaccine for variants, and is working on developing software that will "help address some of these new and emerging variants."