The United States on Tuesday reported its first confirmed case of Covid-19 from a variant of the coronavirus suspected to have originated in the United Kingdom, which is a new cause for concern as new research is more contagious than other strains.
The Government of Colorado, Jared Polis, Announces that the state identified the matter in a man in his twenties with no recent travel history. This is the first known infection of the newly identified strain in the US, and most experts are likely to believe that more will follow.
“There’s a lot we do not know about this new Covid-19 variant, but scientists in the UK are warning the world that it is significantly more contagious,” Polis said in a newsletter on Tuesday.
It is not uncommon for viruses to mutate, and indeed several other variants of the coronavirus have been reported. But until now, most mutations have had no significant impact on how the virus spreads or how sick people are infected.
The new variant, called VUI-202012/01, was found to contain a handful of mutations in its genetic code. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these changes are predicted to make the virus more likely to be transmitted.
Many US hospitals are already in crisis. The concern is that a more contagious variant of the virus could increase the number of new cases and affect the healthcare system even more.
“If you have twice as many cases, even if the number of people who are ill is the same as it is at present, it will definitely be bad,” said Dr. Diane Griffin, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Anything that increases the number of cases will be bad.”
The new variant has been identified in more than a dozen other countries, including France, Denmark, Japan, South Korea and Canada. But because there is no widespread effort in the U.S. to perform regular genome sequencing of samples from across the country, it is likely that the variant is already spreading in the U.S., Griffin said.
“I’m sure it’s already spreading here and we just do not know it yet,” said Griffin, who asked to better monitor the evolution of the virus as part of a committee for the National Academy of Sciences. “That’s why we’re really trying to suppress the US to have a better surveillance system so we can constantly monitor what the virus is doing here and that we’ll see when a new version arrives.”
Scientists in the UK are now doing that kind of forensic work.
A new report from the country’s Department of Health and Social Care has found that the newly identified variant does not look more deadly and does not cause serious illness.
Although the findings offer some relief, experts believe there is still an acute risk that healthcare systems could be overwhelmed in the coming weeks and months because the new variant is more contagious.
“It is known that one of the mutations identified increases the ability of the virus to bind to its receptor,” Griffin said. “So it makes sense that it would be more transferable.”
In the new report, published by Public Health England, it was found that cases in different cases do not have an increased risk of re-infection, and that the mortality rate is not greater. The study compared 3538 Covid-19 cases, of which nearly 2,700 were identified by genome sequencing as the new coronavirus variant.
The severity of illness and death is not the only cause for concern for countries struggling with serious outbreaks of infections, such as the United Kingdom. If the virus can now spread faster through communities, there will obviously be more hospitalizations and deaths.
More research is needed, but the increased portability of the new variant may mean that the so-called reproduction number has changed. The figure, called R-naughty, is an estimate of the average number of people likely to infect one Covid-19 patient, and is used to represent how contagious a disease is.
Apparently small changes in the reproductive number – for example R-nothing increasing from 1.1 to 1.3 – can be large increase in potential infections due to the spread of pathogens.
“An increase in something that grows exponentially (ie transmission) can have much more effect than the same proportional increase in something that only scales a result (ie severity),” said Adam Kucharski, a mathematician and epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical. Medicine, posted on Twitter.
It is estimated that the new variant may be anywhere from 50 percent to 70 percent more transferable, but more research is needed to understand why.
Another major unknown is what effect the new variant will have on immunity, if any. There is still no evidence that the same antibodies that recognize the virus will also not work against the new variant, but this is the kind of development that keeps epidemiologists on track.
“One of the things we worry about is that it changes the effectiveness of the vaccine?” Griffin said. “We do not have evidence that this mutation does, but if viruses mutate, we are always concerned about what it means for immunity or to become resistant to drugs.”
A separate coronavirus variant reported in South Africa is also considered more contagious, but research is still being done to better understand its characteristics.
“Lab studies are taking time and we expect more information over the coming days and weeks,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the Covid-19 technical leader for the World Health Organization, said in a newsletter on Monday about the newly identified variants.
While scientists are racing to discover more details about the new variants, experts say it is more important than ever to follow guidelines for public health.
“All the things we said – wearing a mask, practicing social distance and avoiding household mixing – those mitigation strategies will continue to work,” Griffin said. “The problem now is that not everyone follows them.”