Health

First U.S. Case of More Contagious Coronavirus Variant is Confirmed

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The first U.S. case of the contagious coronavirus variant, originally discovered in the UK, was found Tuesday in Colorado, Governor Jared Polis said, pointing to the worrying possibility that the variant is already well-established in the patient community – and maybe elsewhere.

“It didn’t teleport across the Atlantic,” said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

The variant was discovered in a man in his twenties with no travel history, Mr Polis said. The man was isolated in Elbert County, southeast of Denver, he said.

Dr. Hanage said the newly reported case “shouldn’t be a cause for panic.” But he added, “There is reason to double our efforts to prevent the virus from getting a chance to spread,” he said.

Scientists are concerned about variants but not surprised by them. It is normal for viruses to mutate, and most of the mutations in the coronavirus have been shown to be minor. There is no evidence that an infection with the variant known as B.1.1.7 is more likely to lead to a severe case of Covid-19, increase the risk of death or evade the new vaccines.

However, the speed at which the variant appears to be spreading could lead to more infections – and therefore more hospitalizations.

The case identified on Tuesday came from Elbert County, Colorado, with a population of about 27,000. Colorado’s cases, deaths and hospitalizations have steadily declined in recent weeks.

“There is a lot we don’t know about this new variant of Covid-19, but scientists in the UK are warning the world that it is far more contagious,” Polis said. “The health and safety of Coloradans is our top priority and we will monitor this case as well as any Covid-19 indicators very closely.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement Tuesday that they expected “there will be more cases that are likely to be discovered in the coming days”.

It is not clear where B.1.1.7 originated. The UK has the largest system for sequencing the genomes of coronaviruses, which is why the variant may have been found there first.

Earlier this month, British researchers observed that the variant was becoming more common in parts of the UK. Your subsequent research suggests that the variant spreads more easily than others in circulation.

Updated

Dec. 30, 2020 at 12:44 am ET

It is also not yet clear why B.1.1.7 transmits more easily. The line has accumulated 23 mutations since splitting off from other coronaviruses. The researchers are studying some of the mutations to see if the viruses can enter cells more easily or make more copies of themselves.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson first warned of the spread of the variant in England on December 19. He reacted to the emergence of B.1.1.7 by restricting the movements of people and the size of the gatherings more strongly.

Much of the south and east of England, including London, was subject to the most severe restrictions. The rules require people to stay at home except for urgent travel, medical appointments, and outdoor exercise. And the British Army has been mobilized to help the National Health Service, the country’s healthcare system, set up locations where drivers can take quick coronavirus tests and drive from truck to truck to run tests.

“If the virus changes its method of attack, we will have to change our method of defense,” Johnson said at the time. “We have to respond to information as we have it because it is now spreading very quickly.”

Fears of the UK variant spreading last week resulted in much of Europe isolating the UK. As part of that effort, France imposed a 48-hour blockade on the UK border that wreaked havoc on both sides of the English Channel and warned the UK that some fresh goods could be short-lived.

By the end of last week, more than 50 governments had imposed restrictions.

A new rule in the United States requiring travelers from the UK – including American citizens – to provide proof of a negative coronavirus test upon entry was announced late Thursday and went into effect on Monday.

However, experts noted that the earliest British samples of B.1.1.7 date back to September. It was likely that the variant had already spread between countries.

It seems they were right. Cases of the variant have been identified in more than a dozen countries around the world. Health officials in Ontario, Canada, said Saturday that they had identified two cases of the variant in a couple with no known travel history or exposure.

The United States sequences far fewer genomes than the UK, which has led American scientists to suspect that the variant may already have been undetected in the country. On Tuesday, the United States joined the United Nations with B.1.1.7.

Dr. Hanage said the United States needs to improve monitoring of the genetic sequences of circulating viruses in order to track their spread. It’s conceivable that the new variant fueled recent outbreaks in the Midwest and Rhode Island, for example, but scientists don’t know because health officials across the country haven’t been tracking the viruses carefully enough.

“The United States is affected by the inconsistency in its approach,” he said. “If we don’t turn on the light, we won’t know it’s there.”

Because B.1.1.7 appears to be so much more contagious than other strains, British researchers have warned that current UK restrictions may not be enough. In a preliminary study, they found schools may need to close and vaccination programs aggressively accelerated to prevent spikes in certain cases.

If B.1.1.7 starts in the US, vaccination may have to accelerate there too. In the first two weeks, however, the US vaccination program is slower than expected.

“You need to be able to remove any obstacles to transmission as quickly as possible,” said Dr. Hanage.

Nicholas Davies, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said in an interview last week that it is clear that faster vaccination is going to be a really important thing for any country dealing with this or similar variants. ”

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