Federal health officials sounded the alarm on Friday over a rapidly spreading, far more contagious variant of the coronavirus that is expected to be the dominant source of infection in the country by March and potentially trigger another wave of cases and deaths.
In a study released Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said their projections indicated that outbreaks caused by the new variant could lead to a burgeoning pandemic this winter. It called for a doubling of prevention efforts, including more intensive vaccination efforts across the country.
The variant is not known to be more deadly or to cause more serious illness. However, the dire warning – backed up by limited data on how widespread the variant first identified in the UK has become – landed in a week when the country’s emerging vaccination campaign was hampered by confusion and limited supply as demand fell below a growing number authorized persons increased
Only 76 cases of the variant have been identified in the US to date, but the real number is estimated to be higher and is expected to increase over the next few weeks. They stressed that current mitigation strategies against the new strain are effective, urging Americans to be vigilant while wearing face masks, staying six or more feet away from other people, washing hands frequently, interacting with people outside reduce their household, limit contacts and avoid crowds.
But spikes in cases threaten to paralyze already overwhelmed hospitals and nursing homes in many parts of the country. Some are full or almost full. Others faced worrying infection rates among their staff, leading to bottlenecks and increasing patient stress.
“I want to stress that we are deeply concerned that this strain is more transmissible and that it may accelerate outbreaks in the US in the coming weeks,” said Dr. Jay Butler, CDC associate director, infectious diseases. “We are sounding the alarm and urging people to realize that the pandemic is not over and that it is in no way time to throw in the towel.”
“We know what works and what to do,” he said.
Covid cases and deaths have broken record after record across the country. A maximum of 4,400 deaths was announced on Tuesday. At least 3,973 new deaths and 238,390 new cases were reported Thursday, and the nation is nearing a milestone of 400,000 deaths.
One in 860 Americans died of Covid-19 last year, according to new figures from the CDC. However, deaths have not declined equally in terms of race, ethnicity and geographic region, and there are concerns that vaccines are not reaching the hardest hit communities where access to health services is limited and suspicion is widespread is.
The new variant, named B 1.1.7, was first identified in the UK, where it quickly became the main source of infection, accounting for 60 percent of the new cases diagnosed in and around London.
It has since been detected in at least 30 countries, including the United States and Canada. In the United States, it makes up less than 0.5 percent of cases based on analysis of a limited number of samples.
Jan. 15, 2021, 1:12 p.m. ET
Other variants circulating in South Africa and Brazil are also considered more contagious, but have not yet been identified in the United States. The Japanese authorities announced this month that they had discovered one of the variants on four passengers arriving from Brazil.
The CDC had previously announced that from January 26, all passengers arriving in the United States, regardless of vaccination status, will have to provide evidence of a negative result from a test for the coronavirus or recovery from Covid.
In the new report, CDC scientists modeled how quickly the variant could spread in the US, assuming around 10 to 30 percent of people already have immunity to the virus, and an additional 1 million people will be vaccinated every week starting this month .
If the variant is around 50 percent more contagious, as shown by data from the UK, it will be the main source of all infections in the US by March, the model showed. A slow introduction of vaccinations will accelerate this fate.
The variant differs from previous versions of the virus by about 20 mutations, including at least two mutations that may add to its greater risk of infection. As of Jan. 13, it had been found in 76 cases from 12 states, but the actual numbers are likely to be much higher, said Dr. Butler. “CDC expects these numbers to rise in the coming weeks,” he said.
State and local laboratories have committed to sequencing approximately 6,000 samples per week, a goal the agency is expected to achieve in about three weeks.
Agency officials also warned that standard tests for the virus may miss one of the altered genes in the new variant. This shouldn’t be a problem for most laboratory tests, but some antigen tests could result in “false negative”, missing cases of infection.
“So far we haven’t found any evidence of this, but we’re taking a closer look,” said Dr. Butler.
It’s not yet clear what makes the new variants more contagious. They share at least one mutation called N501Y that is believed to be involved. One possibility, the researchers say, is that the mutation may increase the amount of virus in the nose but not in the lungs – which may explain why it’s more contagious, but not more deadly.
A higher amount of virus in the nose means anyone infected would get rid of more virus when they talk, sing, cough, or even breathe, said Trevor Bedford, evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
“It makes the same situations that are spreading now – people living in the same household, these kind of unventilated indoor contacts – are more likely to spread,” he said.