What We Know About New, More Contagious Strain Of COVID-19

A variant of the COVID-19 strain has rapidly spread throughout the United Kingdom, prompting new lockdown restrictions and travel bans. The variant is likely already in the U.S., though no cases have been confirmed, health officials say. [heardinlondon / Shutterstock]
A variant of the COVID-19 strain has rapidly spread throughout the United Kingdom, prompting new lockdown restrictions and travel bans. The variant is likely already in the U.S., though no cases have been confirmed, health officials say. [heardinlondon / Shutterstock]

Scientists are investigating a new variant of the coronavirus strain that has been reported in several countries in Europe, and now North America.

The variant, called B 1.1.7, has accounted for more than 60 percent of new COVID cases in London, health officials said. British officials have imposed new lockdown restrictions to try to contain the spread, and at least 40 countries have restricted travel to the U.K.

The variant appears to be more contagious than the original virus, but so far, it does not appear to be more deadly, said Dr. Keith Armitage, infectious disease physician and medical director of the Roe Green Center for Travel Medicine at University Hospitals.

“There’s no evidence, currently, that it’s more virulent, that it causes a more severe illness,” he said.

As COVID-19 spreads, the virus mutates, which is just what viruses do, Armitage said. The reason B 1.1.7 is cause for concern is because it has acquired mutations more rapidly than expected, he said.

However, none of the mutations have yet altered the spiked protein that makes COVID-19 so unique, he added. Because of this, the current COVID-19 vaccines being implemented across the world have a good chance of protecting people against the new strain, he said.

Both vaccines from pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna elicit an immune response specifically geared to fight the virus's spiked proteins.

“So far, there’s not been a mutation … to change the spike protein in a way that the antibodies produced by the vaccine wouldn’t recognize it,” Armitage said.

And, people who have already had COVID-19 likely have some immunity to the new strain as well, he added.

The strain appears to have reached North America, as two cases have been confirmed in Canada, health officials announced Saturday.

And in Los Angeles, where a concerning surge in new COVID-19 cases has led to record low intensive care unit (ICU) bed capacity, scientists are investigating if the new strain may be the cause of the rapid spread.

Armitage is not aware of any cases in Ohio that have been identified as the new strain, and there is not yet evidence that it is the dominant strain circulating in the greater Los Angeles area, he added.

“Think back early on [to the COVID-19 crisis in] Northern Italy, think about the greater New York City, New Jersey area in the spring, you don’t need this more contagious strain to have the kind of crisis they’re having in Southern California right now,” he said.

Still, it is safe to assume that there are cases of B 1.1.7 in the U.S., even though none have been confirmed, Armitage said.

“People think it must already be here, because [there is] so much travel around the world,” he said. “Compared to other countries, in the United States, we’ve actually done less surveillance of viral strains, relative to our size.”

Armitage said it is important for federal health officials to keep an eye on COVID-19 mutations to stay on top of them as the pandemic progresses.

Dr. Tara Smith, epidemiologist at Kent State University, agreed that there needs to be more federal intervention and surveillance of the virus as it mutates, in addition to more testing.

“We really need to be ahead of the curve for this and doing some of that pre-emptive testing and we're still really not,” she said. “We're still behind in our response to this virus unfortunately…so maybe that will change with the new year."

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