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  • The coronavirus variant detected in the United Kingdom could lead to a surge in new COVID-19 cases.
  • This trajectory would put even more pressure on our already overwhelmed healthcare system.
  • Additionally, there are other homegrown variants that could accelerate the pandemic over the next few months.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

The new coronavirus variant detected in the United Kingdom is expected to be the dominant strain in the United States by March.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published a model illustrating the impact the the variant named B.1.1.7 could have on cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.

The variant isn’t thought to cause a more severe illness or diminish the efficacy of the vaccines. But epidemiological evidence suggests it’s up to 50 percent more transmissible than other variants going around.

Left uncontrolled, the B.1.1.7 variant could lead to a surge in new cases, even more than what we’re currently seeing. This would lead to an increase in hospitalizations and deaths, according to the CDC’s model.

This trajectory would put even more pressure on our already overwhelmed healthcare system.

But there’s a lot of factors that could change the outcomes predicted by the model, such as vaccines, population immunity, and our behavior.

There’s also other new homegrown variants — like the ones identified in Ohio and Los Angeles — that could accelerate the pandemic over the next few months.

The key is to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible and to not let our guard down just yet.

The same mitigation measures used throughout the pandemic — mask wearing, hand washing, and physical distancing — will work just as well on this variant as any others.

A variant that’s 50 percent more transmissible might not sound like a big deal, but it can have a substantial impact, said Dr. F. Perry Wilson, a Yale Medicine physician and clinical researcher, and Coursera instructor of “Understanding Medical Research: Your Facebook Friend is Wrong.”

“That means that, on average, every person infected spreads it to 50 percent more people, and then those people spread it to 50 percent more people, and so on and so on,” Wilson said.

The CDC predicts that without vaccination, the variant could cause caseloads to swell from 60 new cases per 100,000 people to over 80 new cases per 100,000 people.

The R number, or reproductive rate, is how many people, on average, a person with the disease will spread the coronavirus to.

Experts suspect the R number for SARS-CoV-2 is around 2. But thanks to the wearing of masks, physical distancing, and population immunity, that number has likely dropped to around 1.1, Wilson said.

If the variant identified in the United Kingdom is 50 percent more transmissible as estimates suggest, the R number would grow to 1.5, the CDC states.

Wilson broke down the math. If 1,000 people were infected with the usual SARS-CoV-2 variant with an R number of 1.1, they would transmit the virus to another 1,100 people. After 10 cycles of this, 2,593 people would be infected.

If the R number grew to 1.5 with the variant detected in the United Kingdom, 10 cycles would lead to 57,665 cases.

“That’s the math that scares me,” Wilson said.

Even if the death rate remains the same, which it likely will, Wilson said the variant could cause “exponentially higher deaths simply because case counts will increase so much more rapidly.”

If the worst case scenario mapped out by the CDC plays out, hospitals that are stretched to their limits will become more overwhelmed. As a result, quality of care may diminish.

“In areas where health systems are close to getting overwhelmed, shelter-in-place may become necessary,” Wilson said.

According to Wilson, the vaccines will be our best tool to mitigate the impact of the new variant.

To blunt the variant’s impact, we need to reduce the number of people a person with the virus can transmit it to.

“While masking and social distancing are key here, vaccines may prove to be the best tool we have, because it is likely much, much harder to transmit virus to a vaccinated person than an unvaccinated person,” Wilson said.

The CDC model predicts that with widespread vaccination, overall cases would drop to 40 new cases per 100,000 individuals by May.

Wilson said that when it comes to vaccinations, we’re in a race against time.

“These new variants mean we need to get vaccines out as fast as possible — rolling off the assembly lines and into arms — to prevent a surge of new infections driven by exponential spread of the more transmissible variants,” Wilson said.

It’ll take time to achieve herd immunity. Wilson said we likely won’t reach it until about 80 percent of people have immunity through vaccination or recovering from the infection.

But even some vaccination provides much-needed relief.

“Even having 20 to 30 percent of the population vaccinated would dramatically slow the spread and give hospitals some breathing room,” Wilson said.

Dr. Ilhem Messaoudi, the director of the University of California, Irvine’s Center for Virus Research, said there’s a lot that can influence the outcomes mapped out in models.

They show us what can happen in specific circumstances, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to precisely pinpoint how things will play out in real life.

“[Models are] really good about keeping us on our toes and keeping us sharp and aware, and kind of facing down, ‘Okay, this is our worst case scenario, we need to do something about it,’” Messaoudi said.

But there are a lot of moving targets that can impact the outcomes, such as:

  • how many people are immune from being previously infected or vaccinated
  • our behaviors and whether we’re adhering to public health safety measures
  • age
  • location
  • health status
  • housing of the population

There may also be other new variants picking up pace around the country, all of which will impact transmission over the coming months.

Some experts suspect that another variant detected in South Africa — the B.1.351 variant — could already be in the United States.

Another new variant that has the same mutation as the B.1.1.7 variant was detected in Ohio last week. Los Angeles, too, identified a variant, CAL.20C, that may driving a surge overwhelming local hospitals.

Messaoudi said there are likely a ton of variants circulating, and that scientists just haven’t sequenced them all.

And as the coronavirus continues to mutate, as it does frequently, more variants will pop up.

“If [a] new mutation works out better for the virus, it’s just going to become the dominant thing,” Messaoudi said.

The CDC model shows that universal, stricter compliance with public health measures used to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will buy us more time to reach higher levels of population immunity through vaccination.

There’s no evidence the B.1.1.7 variant will be resistant to the mitigation strategies used to prevent transmission.

A combination of safety precautions such as mask wearing and getting more vaccines into arms — even with more transmissible variants going around — will put us in a better place 6 months from now, Messaoudi said.

“It’s concerning that it’s more transmissible. That means that more than ever, we should not let our guard down,” Massaoudi said.

The new variant detected in the United Kingdom is expected to be the dominant strain in the United States by March.

Left uncontrolled, the B.1.1.7 variant could lead to a surge in new cases, even more than what we’re currently seeing. This would lead to an increase in hospitalizations and deaths, according to the CDC’s model.

Quick, widespread vaccination is our best bet at mitigating the potential impact of the new variants.

In the meantime, public health safety measures, like wearing masks, will help prevent the spread of all coronavirus variants.