CDC: More contagious UK coronavirus strain could be dominant in US in March

A more transmissible strain of the coronavirus first discovered in the U.K. could spread rapidly and become the dominant one in the U.S. as soon as March, a new federal report said Friday.

The alarming report comes as health systems here are already grappling with record high hospitalizations and deaths. Greater transmission would mean more cases, more hospitalizations for struggling hospitals and ultimately, more deaths, says the report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That makes it more important than ever to slow the spread, CDC says, recommending beefed-up mitigation efforts — including physical distancing, mask wearing and limited gatherings.

“We are very concerned about this variant,” said Michael Johansson, one of the study’s authors and co-lead of the modeling team for the CDC’s COVID-19 response. “We certainly empathize with people growing tired of the pandemic, and we understand how difficult it is for people to protect themselves, but this information is further evidence as hard as it is, we have to stay the course.

“Especially with vaccines coming out, we have to do what we can to buy time,” he said.

While the U.K. strain is not believed to cause more severe disease or be deadlier in infected persons, it is believed to be about 50% more infectious than other common strains.

The U.K. strain has overwhelmed hospitals and led to a third national lockdown in England. While the CDC said it has confirmed only 76 cases of the U.K. strain in this country, including one in Georgia, the U.S. foothold is likely far larger, given limited genetic surveillance.

Jodie Guest, professor and vice chair of the department of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, said that changes in the spike protein, the part of the virus that penetrates human cells, leading to infection, helps the U.K. strain get into the body more efficiently.

“As we start to anticipate this variant will become more widely spread across the United States, we should anticipate our surges will get bigger, faster with this,” she said.

Vaccinations falling short

Given the prevalence of the coronavirus and the evolutionary need of viruses to adapt to our defenses and replicate, experts say the U.K. mutation and others only increase the urgency to vaccinate people around the globe.

“Things are bad now and it could potentially get worse faster,” said S. Mark Tompkins, a virologist, immunologist, and professor of infectious diseases at the University of Georgia.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines being distributed nationwide appear to be effective against the U.K. strain. So far, though, the U.S. vaccination effort has fallen far short of the pace Trump administration officials set in the fall.

To expand access, on Tuesday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the federal government in two weeks would start releasing doses that had been reserved for required booster shots. Azar said that should allow states to vaccinate seniors and adults with high-risk conditions.

But the Washington Post reported Friday that reserve was already exhausted when HHS vowed to release the booster shots, meaning states may not get extra supplies on top of their current allotments for weeks.

Georgia has not received any update from the federal Operation Warp Speed on increased, or decreased, vaccine allocation, Mallory Blount, Gov. Brian Kemp’s press secretary, said Friday.

The state expanded eligibility to seniors on Monday, but the allocation of doses to date is far short of what’s needed to serve 1.5 million people 65 and older. Georgia has not yet expanded eligibility to younger adults with pre-existing conditions.

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Limited surveillance

The U.K. government reported the new strain, known as B.1.1.7, in December, though it is believed to have emerged in September.

The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) reported the first confirmed case of the U.K. strain in Georgia last week. The patient was an 18-year-old male with no history of overseas travel, indicating he was infected within his community.

However, public health officials have been left largely blind to how widespread any new strain might be in the U.S. That’s because the surveillance network to detect new mutations in the virus is feeble at best, relying on a patchwork of universities, commercial labs and state public health agencies.

The CDC said it is ramping up its genetic surveillance, but the U.S. reportedly conducts genetic sequencing on fewer than 1% of samples, a fraction of what the U.K. does. Georgia DPH relies on its own lab and commercial labs, but it’s unclear what percentage of current samples are being sequenced.

Since the pandemic began, the U.S. has sequenced only 72,796 genomes, including 290 genomes from Georgia, according to information provided by GISAID, an international database where researchers share new genomes from coronaviruses. The total for the U.S. is less than half than those sequenced by Britain, which has one-fifth the U.S. population.

The U.K. strain isn’t the only one of concern. A strain in South Africa known as B.1.351 carries many of the same attributes as the U.K. strain. Researchers believe one mutation can make it harder to detect via testing and another seems to help the virus resist antibody therapies.

To date, the CDC has not reported any cases of the South African strain in the U.S.

Researchers at Ohio State University, meanwhile, have detected what they believe to be a unique American strain that shares some of the same characteristics as the U.K. variant.

‘A more global approach’

If left unchecked, rampant outbreaks create more opportunities for viruses to replicate and mutate. That raises the risk of mutations that cause resistance to vaccines or other treatments for COVID-19, experts said.

It also accelerates the need to contain the coronavirus and vaccinate people in the U.S. and abroad, health experts said.

Many poorer nations don’t have the resources of industrialized nations to develop vaccines and need the assistance of wealthier nations to create access.

Under the Trump administration, the U.S. pulled out of a global alliance led in part by the World Health Organization to develop and distribute vaccines to high-risk populations worldwide.

Dr. Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean of Emory University School of Medicine at Grady Health System, said during a recent Facebook Live event that he hoped the incoming Biden administration would rejoin the global community to create more equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.

“If we don’t take a more global approach, we will never get out of this mess.” del Rio said.

AJC data specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this article.