On Dec. 29, Colorado officials confirmed that they had identified the first known case of the new COVID strain in the United States. The new, more contagious strain has become the dominant variant in parts of the U.K. But as experts like Anthony Fauci, MD, have warned, the variant may already have been circulating in the States. In fact, because the first known case is among a 20-something patient who didn't travel and had no known contacts with COVID, it's very likely that the strain is indeed among us. "More is out there, we just haven't detected it yet," Michelle Barron, MD, senior medical director of infection prevention for UCHealth, told The Denver Post. "We just happened to be the ones that found it first." Just after the news broke on Dec. 29, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a similar warning about the new COVID strain, telling The Post: "We expect that there will be additional cases that are likely to be detected in the coming days." The CDC expert added that because the new variant appears to be transmitted at a higher rate, "it could lead to more cases and hospitalizations," the newspaper added.
Read on for everything you need to know about this new variant of COVID-19, and for more coronavirus news, check out The Real Reason President Trump Hasn't Gotten the COVID Vaccine Yet.
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The new COVID strain is up to 70 percent more contagious than the original.
Officially, this is known as the B.1.1.7 variant, more commonly referred to as the U.K. strain of COVID-19, as it was first identified in the country. Preliminary research indicates that it may be as much as 70 percent more contagious than previous strains and therefore is transmitting faster among the population. "We now have high confidence that this variant does have a transmission advantage over other virus variants that are currently in the U.K.," Peter Horby, MBBS, chair of the U.K.'s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), said on Dec. 21, according to Reuters. And for more on why the current U.S. surge is so worrisome, check out Dr. Fauci Just Said These 3 Things Are About to Make COVID Worse.
This is at least the fifth COVID mutation.
Viruses, by their nature, mutate regularly to improve their chances of survival—it's why the flu shot is slightly different every year as scientists adapt its components to maximize its efficacy. The novel coronavirus, which originally emerged in Wuhan, China, was quickly superseded by the D614G mutation, which emerged in Europe in February, and a later A222V variant, which spread across the continent from Spain. Another variant that also appears to be highly contagious is the 501.V2 strain, which is currently spreading in South Africa. And for more regular updates on COVID, sign up for our daily newsletter.
The new variant doesn't make people any more sick or likely to die.
The good news with this new variant identified in Colorado is that while it spreads faster, it doesn't appear to make people any more sick. In a statement, England's Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, MBBS, said: "There is no current evidence to suggest the new strain causes a higher mortality rate … although urgent work is under way to confirm this."
As for stateside experts, the CDC posted an update on the new variant this week, saying, "Initial studies suggest that the new variant may spread more easily from person to person. So far, scientists in the U.K. see no evidence that infections by this variant cause more severe disease." And for another update from one of the most trusted medical officials in the U.S., check out Dr. Fauci Just Made a Scary Admission About the COVID Surge.
The same health measures that work against the original strain also work against this new variant.
For now, experts are asking the public to keep up with existing health measures: social distancing, mask wearing, and hand washing. "We are currently using all the tools available to protect public health and mitigate the spread of this variant," Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said in a statement on Dec. 29.
"The things we've been talking about all along, we just need to make sure we do it," Fauci told Newsweek on Dec. 29 of the new strain, before it was found in the U.S. "Wearing masks, keeping distances, avoiding congregate settings, doing things outdoors more than indoors, washing your hands frequently—those are the things that stop any virus, regardless of whether it mutates or not."
And for more on the latest coronavirus news, check out The One Thing You Can Stop Doing to Avoid COVID, According to Doctors.
The existing vaccines work against the new COVID variant.
Many Americans were initially worried that the newly released COVID vaccines would no longer be able to protect them from the U.K. variant, but health experts were quick to note that the shots already being administered are still effective against the new COVID strain. Britain's Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance, MBBS, said that the vaccines seem to continue to generate an immune response to the new COVID strain, Reuters reports. And for more on how you can help keep COVID at bay, check out This Common Supplement Could Help You Avoid COVID, Study Says.