Update (December 31): California officials announced a case of the variant in a 30-year-old San Diego County man who had not traveled outside the country, suggesting the virus was transmitted by someone else in the community. A household contact has also developed symptoms, officials said, and is being tested. Trevor Bedford, an evolutionary virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle tells The New York Times that he expects a similar trajectory of the variant in the US as in the UK: the variant accounts for few cases now, but might constitute the majority of cases in a few months, due to its increased transmissibility.
Colorado officials yesterday reported the first known US case, followed by an additional suspected case today (December 30), of the COVID-19 variant that has swept across the UK, leading dozens of countries to restrict UK arrivals. Although the variant appears to transmit more efficiently between people, it is no more likely to cause a more severe infection, according to a preliminary report from Public Health England (PHE) released on Monday.
“It didn’t teleport across the Atlantic,” Harvard University epidemiologist William Hanage tells The New York Times. The newly reported case “should not be cause for panic,” he says, adding, “it is cause to redouble our efforts at preventing the virus from getting the opportunity to spread.”
Both the confirmed case and the suspected case are members of the Colorado National Guard who had been deployed to help with a COVID-19 outbreak at the Good Samaritan Society assisted living facility in Simla, about 45 miles northeast of Colorado Springs, state health officials announced during a Wednesday news conference. The confirmed case is a man in his 20s that has no travel history, according to a tweet from the office of Colorado governor Jared Polis.
Additional cases with the new variant will be detected in the United States in coming days, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted in a statement to The Washington Post Tuesday. The variant’s apparent increase in contagiousness “could lead to more cases and place greater demand on already strained health care resources,” the agency says.
Researchers had detected the more transmissible variant in at least 17 countries outside the UK as of Tuesday, including Australia, Canada, and South Korea.
“Now I’m worried there will be another spring wave due to the variant,” epidemiologist Trevor Bedford of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle tells Associated Press. “It’s a race with the vaccine, but now the virus has just gotten a little bit faster.”
It is unlikely that people who were previously infected with COVID-19 will be reinfected if exposed to the variant, according to the PHE report. Experts say that COVID-19 vaccines will most likely confer immunity against the variant.
The arrival of the new variant “doesn’t fundamentally change the nature of the threat,” Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health epidemiologist Justin Lessler tells the Post. “It’s no more deadly than the virus was before, and it doesn’t look like it infects people who are immune.”
Lessler says he would be “astounded” if this were the only case of the variant in the US. “We know that the virus spreads easily and quickly between countries,” he says, and the patient’s lack of travel history indicates “this strain has gotten here sometime in the past, and there are chains of transmission ongoing.”
Preliminary UK contact tracing data suggest that of people known to have been exposed to someone infected with the variant, 15.1 percent became infected, whereas those exposed to someone infected with other strains had a 9.8 percent infection rate. That difference suggests the variant is more contagious, but PHE says it needs more data to confirm this.
PHE’s data mirror the findings in a separate study, published to a preprint server last week and not yet peer reviewed, that estimated that the variant, known as B.1.1.7 or VOC 202012/01, is 56 percent more transmissible but not more severe or lethal than other variants.
Of the 17 mutations found in the variant, eight are in the segment of the virus’s genome that codes for the spike protein that protrudes from the virus and allows it to bind to cellular receptors and infiltrate cells, according to a preliminary report on the variant published December 18. Some scientists theorize these mutations may explain its enhanced transmissibility.
British public health officials first detected B.1.1.7 in September, meaning the variant has had ample time to spread outside the country. Despite having the highest number of recorded cases in the world, the US sequences far fewer SARS-CoV-2 genomes than the UK, leading scientists to suspect that the variant may already have been spreading across the country undetected before yesterday’s announcement.
Harvard’s Hanage tells the Times that the US would have to improve how it monitors the genetic sequences of viruses to track their spread in real time. “The United States is hobbled by the inconsistency of its approach,” he says. “Unless we turn on the lights, we won’t know it’s there.”
Many scientists say the arrival of B.1.1.7 is a wake-up call. “The lack of virus sequencing and case tracking in the US is a scandal,” University of Massachusetts virologist Jeremy Luban tells the Post.