Story at a glance

  • CDC researchers issued warnings to the public about the more contagious U.K. COVID-19 strain.
  • Seventy-six cases have been reported across 10 states.

Officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued fresh warnings as the COVID-19 mutation first reported in England makes its rounds in the U.S. while new cases continue to climb to record highs.

Published in an online report, CDC research suggests that the U.K. COVID-19 variant, formally known as SARS-CoV-2, B.1.1.7, could potentially lead to a serious increase in new infections due to its increased transmissibility, meaning it is more contagious.

Using national genomic surveillance data, which reports instances of the new COVID-19 variant’s appearance, the CDC says transmission can be contained, but will also depend on continued adherence to public health measures like face masks, social distancing and quarantine upon exposure.

“Multiple lines of evidence indicate that B.1.1.7 is more efficiently transmitted than are other SARS-CoV-2 variants,” the report reads. It went as far as to warn that the more contagious strain could become more widespread.

“The modeled trajectory of this variant in the U.S. exhibits rapid growth in early 2021, becoming the predominant variant in March.”

The structural mutations occur at the binding receptors of the COVID-19 spike protein, or the structures on the outside of the cell responsible for attaching to host cells and enabling infection. 

Researchers note that earlier in the pandemic, other variants of COVID-19, namely the D614G mutation, also increased receptor binding, which resulted in this variant becoming the dominant strain in multiple geographic areas.

The broad consensus among public health experts is that the newly approved COVID-19 vaccines will still be effective against new strains like B.1.1.7. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however, issue a warning that the U.K. variant may lead to false negative results on select reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests, which could lead to upticks in transmission.

Given this, the CDC notes that increased vaccination efforts are the best way to slow the spread of the new COVID-19 variant.

Using a statistical model to predict the rates of transmission the U.K. COVID-19 strain could inflict, researchers noted vaccination was the most effective way to reduce spread. 

“The effect of vaccination on reducing transmission in the near term was greatest in the scenario in which transmission was already decreasing,” scientists wrote. “Early efforts that can limit the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant, such as universal and increased compliance with public health mitigation strategies, will allow more time for ongoing vaccination to achieve higher population-level immunity.”

While there is no known difference in health outcomes between the distinct COVID-19 variants, Jay Butler, the deputy director for infectious diseases at the CDC, urges Americans to remain cautious when in public.

“I want to stress that we are deeply concerned that this strain is more transmissible and can accelerate outbreaks in the U.S. in the coming weeks,” Butler reportedly said. “We’re sounding the alarm and urging people to realize the pandemic is not over and in no way is it time to throw in the towel.”

Officials still do not know exactly how far the COVID-19 variant has transmitted across the U.S. About 76 confirmed cases of B.1.1.7 have been reported across 10 U.S. states, but the country is still posting record-high numbers of new infections. 

As of Jan. 15, the CDC recorded 227,746 new COVID-19 cases and more than 3,900 new fatalities. 

Published on Jan 15, 2021