The first U.S. case of the highly contagious COVID-19 variant has been found in a Colorado man who did not travel outside the country. Meanwhile, the number of coronavirus cases continues to soar even as America struggles with its vaccine rollout. NBC’s Kerry Sanders reports for TODAY.
A man in his 20s in Colorado is confirmed to have the more virulent strain that was detected in the United Kingdom, officials said.
Here are some questions and answers on what’s known about the virus so far.
Q: WHERE DID THIS NEW VARIANT COME FROM? A: New variants have been seen almost since the virus was first detected in China nearly a year ago. Viruses often mutate, or develop small changes, as they reproduce and move through a population.
Most changes are trivial. "It’s the change of one or two letters in the genetic alphabet that doesn’t make much difference in the ability to cause disease,” said Dr. Philip Landrigan, a former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientist who directs a global health program at Boston College.
A more concerning situation is when a virus mutates by changing the proteins on its surface to help it escape from drugs or the immune system, or if it acquires a lot of changes that make it very different from previous versions.
Q: HOW DOES ONE VARIANT BECOME DOMINANT? A: That can happen if one variant takes hold and starts spreading in an area, or because “super spreader” events helped it become established.
It also can happen if a mutation gives a new variant an advantage, such as helping it spread more easily than other ones that are circulating.
Scientists are still working to confirm whether the variant in England spreads more easily, but they are finding some evidence that it does. The variant “out-competes the other strains and moves faster and infects more people, so it wins the race,” Landrigan said.
The British variant was first detected in September, WHO officials said. A new South African variant also has emerged.
Q: WHAT’S WORRISOME ABOUT THE BRITISH VARIANT? A: It has many mutations — nearly two dozen — and eight are on the spike protein that the virus uses to attach to and infect cells. The spike is what vaccines and antibody drugs target.
Dr. Ravi Gupta, a virus expert at the University of Cambridge in England, said modeling studies suggest it may be up to two times more infectious than the version that’s been most common in England so far. He and other researchers posted a report of it on a website scientists use to quickly share developments, but it has not been formally reviewed or published in a journal.
Q: DOES IT MAKE PEOPLE SICKER OR MORE LIKELY TO DIE? A: “There’s no indication that either of those is true, but clearly those are two issues we’ve got to watch,” Landrigan said. As more patients get infected with the new variant, “they’ll know fairly soon if the new strain makes people sicker.”
A WHO outbreak expert, Maria Van Kerkhove, said that “the information that we have so far is that there isn’t a change” in the kind of illness or its severity.
Q: WHAT DO THE MUTATIONS MEAN FOR TREATMENTS? A: A couple of cases in England raise concern that the mutations in some of the emerging new variants could hurt the potency of drugs that supply antibodies to block the virus from infecting cells.
Studies on antibody response are under way, Van Kerkhove said.
One drugmaker, Eli Lilly, said that tests in its lab suggest that its drug remains fully active.
Q: WHAT ABOUT VACCINES? A: Scientists believe current vaccines will still be effective against the variant, but they are working to confirm that. On Wednesday, British officials reiterated that there is no data suggesting the new variant hurts the effectiveness of the available vaccines.
Vaccines induce broad immune system responses besides just prompting the immune system to make antibodies to the virus, so they are expected to still work, several scientists said.
Q: WHAT CAN I DO TO REDUCE MY RISK? A: Follow the advice to wear a mask, wash your hands often, maintain social distance and avoid crowds, public health experts say.
“The bottom line is we need to suppress transmission” of the coronavirus, said the WHO’s director-general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“The more we allow it to spread, the more mutations will happen.”
A coronavirus variant carrying some of the same mutations as the highly contagious British variant may have been in the US since October and already be widespread, a re-analysis of more than 2m tests suggests.
Genome sequencing to confirm whether the variant observed in Americans is the same as the so-called B117 variant currently circulating in the UK is under way.
Results are expected within days but the revelations have prompted fresh questions about where the altered virus originated, including a small possibility that it began in the US, not the UK, or elsewhere altogether. The variant has also been found in at least 17 countries, including South Korea, Spain, Australia and Canada.
“It wouldn’t be at all surprising if at least some of the cases were B117,” said Eric Topol, head of Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California, who was not involved in the research, but whose team confirmed a Californian case of the B117 variant on Wednesday.
“It has probably been here for a while at low levels – but you don’t see it until you look for it.”
The existence of a new and highly transmissible Sars CoV-2 variant was announced by the UK’s health secretary on 14 December, after Covid-testing laboratories reported that a growing number of their positive samples were missing a signal from one of the three genes their PCR tests use to confirm the presence of the virus.
Further sequencing revealed that such “S gene dropout” was the result of mutations in the gene encoding the spike protein which the virus uses to gain entry to human cells. The variant is thought to have been circulating in the UK since September.
News of the new variant has led to multiple countries restricting travel from the UK – or in the case of the US, requiring travelers to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test to be allowed into the country. However, the first known US cases were detected earlier this week in Colorado and California, and the suspicion is it may already be widespread.
In the final hours of 31 December, a third US state, Florida, officially reported a case of the variant coronavirus, a man in his twenties in Martin county, north of West Palm Beach, who had no recent history of travel, the Florida health department said.
To investigate, scientists at the California-based DNA testing company Helix examined the prevalence of S gene dropout among 2 million of the Covid tests the company has processed in recent months. They observed an increase in S gene dropout among positive samples since early October, when 0.25% of positive tests exhibited this pattern.
This has since grown, hitting 0.5% on average last week – although in Massachusetts, which has the highest number of such samples, it currently stands at 1.85%, although no cases of the B117 variant have been announced in that state yet.
Further analysis revealed mutations in some of the same regions of the S gene which are also present in the B117 variant – although full sequencing of the viral genome is needed to confirm whether this is indeed the same variant, or something else.
Hospitals in the United States are on high alert for the new, more contagious COVID-19 strain that first surfaced in the United Kingdom and has since shown up in Colorado, California and now Florida.
Florida health officials announced this week they have evidence of the first identified case of the strain in Martin County. In a Twitter post Thursday night, the state's health department said the man is in his 20s with no history of travel.
The fast-moving virus arrives as cases continue to rise at an unrelenting pace, CBS News' Tom Hanson reports. More than 160,000 new COVID-19 infections were reported across the country on Friday, pushing the total number of cases above 20 million on the first day of 2021.
Nearly 350,000 Americans have died from the disease. In California alone, the virus took 585 lives on New Years Day — the same day 47,000 new cases were reported in the state, swelling caseloads in hospitals.
"It's like treading water from 100 feet below the surface," said Scott Brickner, a nurse at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. "You're already drowning but you just have to keep trying because that's what you can do."
Public health experts are warning that the new mutant British variant of the novel coronavirus in the U.S. will make efforts to contain the spread as well as to vaccinate people a 'formidable challenge.'
The new strain, known as SARS-CoV-2 VUI 202012/01, is feared to be 70 percent more transmissible and to spread more easily among children.
So far, the 'super-COVID' variant has only been detected in four states: California, Colorado, Florida and New York.
But scientists tell Bloomberg there are likely 'hundreds' of infections throughout the nation and that there needs to be a stronger push to get people immunized before more people are infected with - or die from - the new strain.
It comes as U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown for England on Monday night that will likely last through mid-February as the virus continues to ravage the country.
'It is a race, and this variant has made the whole challenge more formidable,' Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California, told Bloomberg.
'Whatever we saw in 2020 in terms of a challenging virus, it's going to be taken to a new level.'