health

The new, more-contagious UK COVID-19 strain is officially in the US

Colorado health officials announced on Wednesday that two people are now confirmed to have the same SARS-CoV-2 variant found to be spreading in the UK. At least one of the men has no known recent travel history, and both work in the same assisted living facility (though in non-clinical roles).

Though the news broke this week, this is really just confirmation of what health experts have already suspected: that the new variant is spreading within the US. Something about this particular strain of COVID-19 seems to have enabled it to spread more quickly, and in the UK it’s become the dominant strain of SARS-CoV-2 in circulation. It doesn’t seem to be more deadly, so health officials aren’t concerned that this is something to be concerned about at this point. Viruses mutate easily. It’s to be expected that, at some point, the novel coronavirus would pick up new mutations that would allow it to become more contagious. UK officials think this variant is up to 70 percent more efficient at spreading. Rough estimates put the new R-naught number (a measure of how infectious a virus is) at around 1.5 versus the average 1.1 for other COVID variants. That means if 10 people were infected with the virus, they’d be expected to then infect 15 new people instead of 11 new people.

Many countries have imposed travel bans on anyone coming from the UK in an attempt to keep the variant out, but like many of the travel bans put in place at the beginning of the pandemic, they’re probably too late. This strain, B.1.1.7 (previously termed VUI-202012/01), was originally identified back in September and by the middle of December accounted for around 60 percent of all new cases in London. It’s unlikely that zero people with the B.1.1.7 variant traveled outside of the UK, and since it does have an edge when it comes to contagiousness, this new strain is likely to start outcompeting other varieties.

That makes our current vaccination efforts all the more important. So far the immunization plan in the US has been woefully inadequate. Government officials originally claimed we’d have 100 million doses available by 2021 (or, according to Operation Warp Speed, around 40 million doses), but with two days left to go in the year there are only about 11.4 million. There have also been problems with the distribution stage. Organizing distribution has largely been left up to state departments of health, which are incredibly underfunded and overburdened, and actually vaccinating individual people is the responsibility of front line public health providers who are just as, if not more so, overworked and understaffed.

There is hope on the horizon. The federal government just passed a bill with money earmarked for vaccine distribution, which though many months late should get things moving a bit faster. It’s going to take real commitment to vaccinate 328 million people—let’s not screw up our chance to finally end the pandemic.

Sara Chodosh

Sara Chodoshis an associate editor at PopSci where she writes about everything from vaccine hesitancy to extreme animal sex. She got her master’s degree in science journalism at NYU’s Science Health and Environmental Reporting Program, and is getting a second master’s in data visualization from the University of Girona. Contact the author here.