Gabriel Cervera and a team of healthcare workers treat a patient infected with coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on December 29, 2020 at the United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, Texas, USA.
Callaghan O’Hare | Reuters
Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday that a new strain of Covid-19 now circulating in the United States could further strain hospitals already overwhelmed with coronavirus patients.
Colorado health officials announced Tuesday that they had discovered the first known case in the US of the new and more infectious strain of the virus that was originally discovered in the UK. A second separate new strain, identified for the first time in South Africa, could already be in circulation in the US, CDC officials said.
“As the variants spread faster, they could lead to more cases and put even more strain on our already stressed health systems,” said Dr. Henry Walke, the agency’s Covid Incident Manager, in a conference call with reporters.
According to Walke, the available data suggest that the new variant “spreads easier and faster than other strains” but does not appear to cause more serious illness or an increased risk of death.
He noted that the person in Colorado infected with the new strain of the virus had no travel history, “suggesting that this variant was transmitted person-to-person in the United States.” He added that given the spread of the variant in the UK, it was “expected” to arrive in the US.
“Viruses are constantly changing through mutation and we expect new variants to emerge over time,” he said. “Many mutations lead to variants that do not change how the virus infects humans. However, there are sometimes variants that are easier to spread, like this one.”
He added that “Experts believe that our current vaccines will be effective against both new strains”. Scientists are still studying how the new strains respond to Covid-19 treatments like monoclonal antibodies and convalescent plasma.
Dr. Greg Armstrong, director of the CDC Office of Advanced Molecular Detection, said the claim that the vaccines will be effective against the new variants is based on “experience with similar previous mutations.” He added that immunity induced by previous infection by another strain is likely to be effective against these new strains as well.
National and state laboratories across the country are running tests to see if other variants are present in the US and how far the variant discovered in the UK is spreading. He said the CDC is ramping up the national surveillance program so that it will receive 750 samples a week for sequencing.
He added that the agency is signing contracts with academic centers across the country to sequence samples and look for new variants locally. These centers are located in Boston, New Haven, Connecticut, Athens, Georgia, Nashville, Tennessee, Madison, Wisconsin, and at the Scripps Institute in San Diego.
“There are a lot of laboratories in the US with this capacity,” he said of testing the new variant. “Many of them are looking for this variant right now.”