The highly contagious UK variant of the coronavirus now accounts for about 10 percent of COVID-19 cases in the US – and could be the overwhelming strain by March, federal officials said Friday.
That roughly 10 percent figure is up “from 1 to 4 percent a few weeks ago” and “prevalence [of the strain] is even higher in certain areas of the country,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a virtual White House COVID-19 briefing.
CDC data shows that there have been 2,102 cases of the UK variant, known as B.1.1.7, reported in 45 states throughout the US.
The UK variant is believed to be up to 50 percent more transmissible than other strains, which are much less prevalent so far in the US.
The other strains are the South Africa variant, known as B.1.351, the Brazil variant, known as P.1, and variants such as the one that has emerged in New York City, called B.1.256, and another in California called B.1.427.
“We may now be seeing the beginning effects of these variants in the most recent data,” Wallensky said, referring to what officials described as worrisome figures.
COVID-19 cases and hospital admissions in the US had been dropping since January, and deaths were declining in the last week, Wallensky noted — “but the latest data suggest that these declines may be stalling, potentially leveling off at still a very high number.”
“We at CDC consider this a very concerning shift in the trajectory,” she said, adding that the most recent seven-day average of new cases, approximately 66,350, is “higher” than Wednesday’s figure.
“In fact, cases have been increasing for the past three days compared to the prior week, and while deaths tend to fluctuate more than cases… the most recent seven-day average, approximately 2,000 per day, is slightly higher than the seven-day average earlier in the week,” Wallensky said.
Wallensky said the CDC is “watching these concerning data very closely” and added that “now is not the time to relax restrictions.
“Although we have been experiencing large declines in cases and admissions over the last six weeks, these declines follow the highest peak we have experienced in the pandemic,” Wallensky said. “Cases, hospitalizations and deaths all remain very high, and the recent shift in the pandemic must be taken extremely seriously.”
Wallensky pointed to the new research that came out this week about the emerging variants in New York and California “that also appear to spread more easily and are contributing to a large fraction of current infections in those areas, adding urgency to the situation.
“We may be done with the virus, but clearly the virus is not done with us. We cannot get comfortable or give in to a false sense of security that the worst of the pandemic is behind us,” Wallensky said.
During the briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, noted that the UK variant “might be the overwhelming strain” by the end of March and that new versions of the current COVID-19 vaccines may be needed to be combat the variants.
“We must address these [variants],” Fauci said, noting that “one of the ways to do that is to make a version of the [coronavirus] vaccine, which actually addresses the particular variant in question.”
He explained how the drug-maker Moderna has begun clinical trials of a new version of its COVID-19 vaccine aimed at the South Africa variant, which, according to the CDC, has been detected in 49 patients in the US.
The South Africa strain, Fauci said, “is not dominant at all here in the US, but we need to pay attention to it.”
A Phase 1 study of Moderna’s vaccine booster will be conducted in mid-March “out of an abundance of caution,” Fauci said.
Fauci urged Americans to continue to “double-down” in fighting the coronavirus by adhering to public health measures.
“Viruses will not mutate if you don’t give them the opportunity to spread and replicate,” he said, adding, “Public health measures are paramount.”
Fauci also called on Americans to get vaccinated as soon as they’re eligible.
“It’s important to get as many people vaccinated as quickly and as expeditiously as possible,” Fauci said.