Public health experts are warning that the new mutant British variant of the novel coronavirus in the U.S. will make vaccination efforts 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.
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.
Researchers say there is now a race to immunize as many as Americans as possible after a new strain of the coronavirus was detected in the U.S. Pictured: Nurse Sandra Lindsay receives the second dose of a Pfizer coronavirus vaccine, at Long Island Jewish Medical Center New York City, January 2021
This map shows how the coronavirus variants have been tracked as they spread around the world. The strain that originated in the U.K., known as SARS-CoV-2 VUI 202012/01, is feared to be 70% more contagious and to spread more easily among children
Although the deadlier strain was discovered in the U.S. just as the vaccination rollout began, distribution has been slow.
According to the CDC, as of Monday morning, 15.4 million doses have been distributed and a little more than 4.5 million people have received their first dose.
This figure is well shy of the Trump administration’s plan to vaccinate 20 million people by the end of 2020.
It also comes as cases in the U.S. surge with more than 20 million confirmed cases – with a rolling average of more than 200,000 per day – and more than 351,000 deaths.
On Sunday, hospitalizations reached a record-high of 125,544, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
‘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.’
U.K. health officials say the virus originated sometime in September and circulated around the country undetected until mid-November and has 17 mutations. Pictured: 3D rendering of the novel coronavirus
The new U.K. variant was first discovered after the country experienced a surge in cases in early December.
It led Prime Minister Boris Johnson to shut down parts of the nation and other countries to impose travel bans.
Currently, it’s unclear when, or how, the virus originated, but researchers believe it circulating undetected from September to mid-November.
Bloomberg reports that the new variant is responsible for at least 62 percent of all COVID-19 cases in London, an increase from 28 percent in early November.
And one study found it could be responsible for 90 percent of all new infections in London and East and South England by mid-January.
The variant has a set of 17 mutations – a very high number – the most significant of which is a change to the spike protein of the virus that it uses to bind to human receptors.
Researchers believe these mutations make it easier for the spike protein to enter and infect human cells, which is why it is more transmissible.
Dr Nick Loman, a professor of microbial genomics at the University of Birmingham, said at a briefing on December 15 that there are not data to suggest the virus came from abroad, according to The BMJ.
Scientists suspect they are likely ‘hundreds’ of infections throughout the country.
‘If I had to guess, I would say it’s probably in hundreds of people by now,’ Dr Michael Worobey, head of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, told CNN.
‘It’s very possible it’s arrived multiple times in multiple places.’
The CDC says it is currently studying how easily the new variant may be transmitted and whether currently authorized vaccines will protect people against them.
Currently, the CDC surveillance system is being scaled to process 750 samples nationally per week and the agency is partnering with laboratories to sequence, or genetically map out – 1,750 samples of the virus weekly.
As of December 29, CDC has commitments from these laboratories to sequence 1,750 samples per week and anticipates being able to increase this number.
Dr Gregory Armstrong, director of the Office of Advanced Molecular Detection at the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, said the CDC hopes to sequence about 6,000 samples per week.
‘It’s important that we monitor the virus and that we be able to pick up these trends that have implications for public health and clinical medicine,’ he told CNN.
However, there is currently no evidence either the Pfizer Inc or the Moderna Inc shot are unable to protect against the new strain.
‘There is a good news here,’ Topol told Bloomberg.
‘It will not affect the vaccine’s efficacy. That’s why there is this race. If we get ahead of this and get everyone vaccinated, if we do that quickly, we will have this virus under control.’