Sabrina Xie / Sun Staff Designer

The COVID-19 testing lab, located at Cornell's School of Veterinary Medicine, identified the first case of the B.1.1.7 variant on Cornell's campus through genomic sequencing on Feb. 5.

February 18, 2021

Cornell Reported the First U.K. Variant Cases on Campus. The Announcement Came Through an Email About a Cluster.

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Nearly two weeks ago, Cornell detected a case of the more contagious and possibly more deadly strain U.K. variant of COVID-19 — but the discovery was lumped into an emergency email about a cluster.  

In an email to The Sun on Feb. 17, Gary Koretzky ’78, vice provost for academic integration, wrote that the B.1.1.7 variant had been detected in “a few students” on Feb. 5. The exact number of campus cases tied to the B.1.1.7 variant remains unclear. 

There was no previous statement explicitly stating that students had tested positive for this new variant, except for a Feb. 5 email, primarily discussing a COVID cluster, that read, “We’re faced with increased virus prevalence locally and in the nation, and, most recently, the emergence of one of the virus variants in our community.”

At the time, it was unclear if the Feb. 5 email was referring to the emergence of the U.K. variant in Tompkins County or the immediate Cornell community. In the email to The Sun on Feb. 17, Koretzky confirmed that this indicated a case of the variant in a Cornell student, faculty or other member. 

“Decisions regarding COVID communications are made with a full consideration of guidance from TCHD and applicable state and federal guidelines and regulations,” Koretzky wrote. 

The U.K. variant was first detected in Tompkins County on Jan. 15, in a test that was sequenced by Cornell’s COVID-19 testing lab. According to a statement made on that day by Provost Michael Kotlikoff, the individual was not affiliated with the University. 

A later University statement, sent on Jan. 28, urged students to follow public health guidelines in response to these new variants, but the University had not yet identified any cases in students. 

Cornell identified the U.K. variant in a “few students” through the arrival testing process, since then COVID-19 testing lab at the College of Veterinary Medicine — which analyzes all of Cornell’s tests — has been conducting full genomic sequencing on the positive samples when there is reason to believe the variant may be present, such as a case tied to international travel. 

Koretzky wrote that less than 2 percent of campus cases that the University is aware of are B.1.1.7. Since the email on Feb. 5, campus has seen 232 total COVID-19 cases — which is just shy of two thirds of the number of cases campus saw through the entire fall semester. 

“Given that our students were arriving from so many different locations, positive samples underwent additional testing for variants that have been described around the world,” Koretzky wrote. “Due to our aggressive surveillance testing protocol, we have been able to contain the spread of the variant among our student population.”

Currently, the U.S. is dealing with multiple variants that have originated internationally, including variants from Brazil and South Africa.

According to Koretzky, “[o]f the variants described in the literature that may have clinical significance, the only one we have identified is the UK variant.”

A handful of universities have reported cases of the B.1.1.7 variants this semester, including the University of California, Berkeley, University of Texas, Austin, and Tulane University.

All six of the schools that have detected the B.1.1.7 variant in their campus community have issued public statements on the matter. Tulane, Berkeley, University of Miami, UT Austin and University of Washington all issued statements to their campuses. The cases at the University of Michigan were initially reported by the local health department. 

While these six institutions are the only ones to report cases of B.1.1.7, typical tests for COVID-19 do not differentiate between the various variants of the virus. So, the only universities that detect these variants are those that are actively searching for them. 

Most diagnostic tests, like those used for Cornell’s surveillance tests, only test for the presence or absence of the virus, but full genomic sequencing allows experts to know the full genetic makeup of a virus sample and identify variants. 

Similar to the schools that have identified a virus variant, Cornell has not significantly altered its COVID-19 precautions, but has doubled down on its existing pandemic measures, including quarantine and isolation protocols, surveillance testing and physical distancing. 

“SARS-CoV-2 variants represent a significant health risk, which we take very seriously. We have sequencing protocols in place to detect the emergence of variants and limit their spread,” Koretzky wrote. “This semester’s enhancements to Cornell’s policies and protocols are aimed to further support students, staff and faculty, and to make our testing, isolation and quarantine protocols even more effective in limiting the virus’s spread.”

With the introduction of the U.K. variant to the campus, Cornell enters the race with the rest of the country — hoping the speed of vaccination can outpace the spread of these more virulent strains.