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As health officials in the United States announced a second and possibly a third person infected with a new, more transmissible strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, infectious diseases experts are feeling a sense of déjà vu all over again.

A little less than a year ago, the early response to the coronavirus crisis was stifled by an inability to scale up testing to detect the virus and curb its spread. Now, once again, it’s unclear how prevalent the new strain, which first surfaced in the U.K., might be in the U.S. Already a possible and a probable case have been detected in Colorado and one case has been reported in California. But it’s likely the variant’s spread hasn’t stopped there.

“It feels a lot like that time between Jan. 19 or so when we had that first case in the Seattle area and six weeks later, when all of a sudden, it looks like we’ve got community transmission in California and Seattle and who knows where else,” said Michael Worobey, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona. “It does have that feeling.”

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Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute, told STAT he doesn’t believe the new variant, which is called B.1.1.7, is widespread yet. There are 250 genetic sequences of SARS-2 viruses from December cases in the U.S. that have been logged into an international virus sharing database known as GISAID; there isn’t a B.1.1.7 among them, Bedford said. But he believes it may just be a matter of time.

“How I imagined this working is … very similar to back to January, February,” he said. “There are seeding events that have occurred throughout the country. Some have taken, some haven’t.… And you could imagine it should be more likely to be in places like New York and Boston with good travel connections to London, but it could have just by happenstance get picked up a bit elsewhere.”

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Worobey agreed the new variant is probably already spreading in a number of parts of the country, traveling under the radar because the U.S. is not doing enough sequencing of SARS-2 viruses.

“We’re a little behind the eight ball in terms of our genomic sequencing, both in terms of absolute numbers and the sort of delay between sampling and getting the sequences out there, compared to the U.K.,” Worobey said. He warned that if the U.S. doesn’t find the cases and slow spread it will likely see the same kind of rapid dissemination of the variant that the U.K. has seen.

The new variant sports an unusual number of mutations, including some that appear to change the virus’ behavior. It seems to be significantly more transmissible, increasing the rate at which infected people infect others.

There’s no evidence to date that the variant triggers more severe disease. But hospitals are straining to handle Covid patients as it is; more infections could lead to a higher death rate, because of diminished quality of care.

“The case fatality rate increases if health care systems get overwhelmed,” said Nahid Bhadelia, medical director of the special pathogens unit at Boston Medical Center. “That’s just how it works.”

There are efforts afoot to try to figure out how widely the new variant is spreading — one of them led by Worobey’s laboratory. His team is trying to develop an assay that could be used to test for variant viruses in wastewater from community sewage systems. If the test works, he said, the lab will ship testing materials to other laboratories, test samples in their own lab, or share the recipe for making the primers and probes to get the test into wide use.

“I do think that wastewater is going to be the best way in the very near term to get a better handle rather than waiting for the odd lab like Colorado that comes across one of these in an individual patient sample,” Worobey said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is also stepping up efforts to increase the sequencing of SARS-2 viruses, officials said Wednesday.

Gregory Armstrong, who is leading the CDC team monitoring virus variants, said the national SARS-CoV-2 strain surveillance system, which was started in November, is scaling up to be able to handle 750 samples submitted by states for sequencing and study every week. The CDC is also working with national reference laboratories in the country, providing funding for sequencing on several times that many viruses. The hope is to get to about 3,500 a week, Armstrong noted.

He said experts at the CDC and elsewhere do not believe the mutations contained in B.1.1.7 will significantly undermine the protection generated by Covid vaccines in use or in production. “It may cause a small impact. But keep in mind it’s likely that the amount of immunity that is induced either by natural infection or vaccination is great enough that a slightly decreased [antibody] titer may not have any noticeable effect at all,” Armstrong said.

But Bedford said increased use of vaccine will put additional pressure on SARS-2 viruses to mutate to try to evade the protection the vaccine trigger.

“It’s even more of an argument to try to get to herd immunity faster and to drive transmission down through vaccination,” he said. “The faster we can get enough people vaccinated, the better we’d be at keeping this variant and other future mutants from spreading.”

  • You have a Black woman drawing up medication without gloves. Once again — showing Black people doing something that is harmful. She should be practicing universal precautions.

  • A PERSON IN MARTIN COUNTY, FLORIDA IS INFECTED WITH THE SUPERSTRAIN. STARTING ON TUESDSAY JAN 5th THROUGH JAN 12th, CENTURY VILLAGE IN WEST BOCA RATON WILL HAVE A MASS VACCINATION EVENT WITH THE 2nd ROUND OF VACCINE BEING ADMINISTERED FROM JANUARY 26 TO FEB 2nd.

  • less than 1/10th of 1% of the us population seem to be at risk of the ‘regular’ covid… now this??? Apparently the sky wasn’t falling enough for these intrepid reporters. Helen – you ARE an idiot

  • PFAS/Forever Chemicals are affecting the immunity of children and adults. This is probably why humans are having a harder time showing immunity for SARS-CoV-2 and will no doubt affect the UK variants B.1.1.1.7, etc. There are bills in Congress (H.R. 535 passed the U.S. House but did not move in the U.S. Senate since Jan. 2020 – ONE YEAR AGO) and the National Defense Authorization Act has multi, multi millions to help with PFAS pollution. The public can call the White House Operator 24/7 at 1-202-225-3121 to leave a message for their U.S. Senators and U.S. Representatives to help with PFAS legislation because there are several bills.

  • Vaccinations really need rampt up to control the spread, I see the numbers of vaccines available only the people are not getting them in their arms,the hold up,slowness is unbelievable!! Sitting in warehouses are not the answer, America needs to move and very quickly.

  • The CDC has once again failed in its jobs, 51k sample sequence against a 20M tests done versus UK 150K sample sequence against 7.635M test done.

    Some administration really need to clean up the CDC. They commit fatal failure again and again during this pandemic.

    1. Test kit failure and yet blaming it on a third party in the beginning. Its turns out it was their own failure to follow proper protocol. This caused substantial number dead as people who cannot be tested cannot be treated properly. In turn this people goes around infecting other people.

    2. Telling the public there is no need to wear mask unless you are symptomatic. Around 40% of infected people are asymptomatic, as these people goes around not wearing mask and infecting other people.

    3. Younger people are fine, but we have seen younger people dying and suffering from neurological symptoms.

    4. Not doing enough sequencing so we can catch new dangerous variant. We have 20M people, we have probably created a few dangerous variant of our own with that number of infected people, yet CDC is sleeping.

    The list can go on…

    When you have something unknown enough for China to quarantine and entire city, it tells you that something is dangerous. CDC along will all other western doctors and the surgeon general made a colossal blunder in not treating this coronavirus seriously. We are where we are now before of their incompetence and wrong messaging.

    Trump had a big opportunity to clean up CDC, especially since its blunder and wrong information had severely damage his administration. It was disappointing he did not clean up CDC.

    I hope Biden will “drain the incompetent” within the CDC and let it do what it is supposed to be doing.

    It seems to be spending more money on nice building that protecting the public.

    • I don’t believe times or any political leaning media especially CNN. Times does carry some neutral articles and seems to be good as investigate report. But it does have some are fake and political inspired articles, distorting the truth.

      Why, because when I watch the daily coronavirus briefing, I would find what was said on the briefing distorted to serve the author’s political attacked. I had seen CNN most of the time distort what was said on the coronavirus briefing. Either the author has mental issues or he is serving his own political interest.

      Trump biggest mistake in answering bait questions bait in the coronavirus daily briefing, especially does not related to coronavirus. That daily coronavirus task force briefing contribute to the ruin his chance of reelections. They know his his weakness and they bait him on it.

      Journalism should only promote truth and be neutral. Once it start distorting truths for political reasons, it cease to be journalism but rather more of a propaganda.

      People should do their own research and not just believe the garbage the media fed to them. News should be read with neutral attitude so you can see what is facts and what is falsehood.

    • Hey Vince, masks either work or they don’t. if they work and you are wearing one, then you are protected. The fact that I am not wearing one (to breathe fresh clean air as humans are supposed to) would not affect you. Unless, of course, one is to believe that the virus can only get in through a mask, but not out through one. But we are following science, right. Note that about 70% of those getting infected report that they always use a mask. I guess they don’t work. What they work at is denying us oxygen, increasing anxiety, and dividing the population.

    • Peter, there are different type of disposable mask and they have their own use. To really protect one self, one has to use the N95 or P100. Don’t even discussed the cloth or flexible mask as no scientific study are done on those.

      If mask are not properly fitted, they air that carries the droplet can go thru. They are the improper handling of mask

      Since you don’t know anything about mask, stick to your none mask wearing attitude. But if you ever get covid19, one hope you don’t use the hospital as the tight hospital resource should not be waste on people like you.

      It seems you have never taken a microbiology and have zero knowledge of how virus works. Go on with your ignorant life.

  • Given that our vaccination efforts in the U.S. are already a complete failure and won’t progress fast enough to head off the virus developing resistance … you can just say we’re never getting out from under this, right?

    • UK are are saying that the immunosuppressed people could be the incubator of the dangerous variant since it stayed in their systems for month. This gives enough time to incubate. But the CDC did not adjust the phase1a to include immunosuppressed people.

      It is not as important to vaccinate as many as you can, but to vaccinate who should be getting vaccine first to prevent dangerous mutations.

      One wrong mutations can invalidate the vaccine. It is impossible to vaccinate 350M in 6 months.

  • Helen,
    I believe the reporting that the B.1.1.7 variant is not more deadly is wrong and is inconsistent with the generally accepted idea that viral load is proportional to disease severity.

    Read my comments to the NYT:

    All credible sources are saying that B.1.1.7 is more infectious because it is more efficient at gaining access to cells. The mutation in the spike protein gives this variant a better intracellular can opener. If the virus is now more efficient, logically it takes a smaller initial inoculum to generate any given level of disease.

    This brings us to viral load which the NYT reported on a few days ago:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/29/health/coronavirus-viral-load.html

    and Sid wrote about in the Spring:

    https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/04/06/how-does-the-coronavirus-behave-inside-a-patient

    If you believe that the initial viral load is a direct predictor of eventual disease severity (I do, and so do most virologists and infectious disease experts, as it explains what we are seeing clinically, and is consistent with other viruses) then variant B.1.1.7 has to be more deadly as it requires a significantly smaller initial viral hit to generate a virus population that can replicate faster than our immune system can respond. It means that this will happen more frequently and N95 masks and regular masks now are significantly less protective, as small virus levels that make it through will now be enough to cause clinical infection.

    You don’t need to go full Andromeda Strain mutation to become more deadly. By being more infectious, B.1.1.7 has achieved that result without a mutation that gives it new pathogenic capabilities.

    Putting on my tin hat, I think the UK knows this and that is why they took the extraordinary step of ignoring trial data and just getting as much vaccine into the population as quickly as possible. I think we should be doing the same before B.1.1.7 becomes dominant.

    I realize that reporting on this may cause panic, but I think the US population needs to look down the gun barrel and maybe start to behave responsibly. It will also drive vaccine acceptance. Like the UK, we need to rapidly change public policy to address a virus that continues to confound our expectations.

  • The vaccines that are currently being distributed are using the Spike ACE receptor binding motif what happens if the new virus has a different way of infecting cells and our immunity antibodies other than the spike protein. The vaccine does not protect us from contracting the virus it’s only for the purpose of hopefully making us less sick siconce we do

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