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Fauci says assume fast-spreading COVID-19 variant ‘already here’

Union Jacks and EU flags fly over Britain's Parliament in London, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Viruses spread and change. That’s why there’s a new flu shot every year as the influenza virus changes over time. The same is true for the coronavirus, which has averaged one to two mutations a month since the pandemic began.

Now a new variant of COVID-19 is spreading rapidly from London outward across the globe as more than 40 countries ban travelers from the United Kingdom.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had said that the new coronavirus variant is 70% more transmissible than existing strains. More than 16 million Britons are now required to stay home as a lockdown came into force Sunday in London and throughout southeast England.

“So if a person sneezes on a bus, the new variant is more likely to infect other people than the previous form of the virus,” said biochemist Jeremy Luban of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Assume COVID-19 variant is already here

Has the new COVID-19 variant made its way to US shores?

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease specialist, told ABC’s Good Morning America:

“When you have this amount of spread within a place like the UK, you really need to assume that it’s here already, and certainly is not the dominant strain [in the US], but I would not be surprised at all if it is already here.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) echoed Fauci’s comment:

“Ongoing travel between the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as the high prevalence of this variant among current UK infections, increase the likelihood of importation,” the CDC said Tuesday.

The CDC said that scientists are working to learn more about the UK variant to better understand its impact on the transmission rate and vaccine efficacy.

Where the latest COVID-19 variant started

This new variant was discovered in September: one case in London and another in the nearby county of Kent. By early December, the new variant had pushed out the other forms of coronavirus to become the dominant one in the region.

The new variant — called B.1.1.7 — was responsible for 62% of new coronavirus infections in London for the week ending Dec. 9, up from 28% from early November, according to Paul Hunter, who’s a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia’s Norwich School of Medicine, as reported by Bloomberg.

This suggest the UK variant is mutating in order to adapt to humans. Also concerning the B.1.1.7 has 23 mutations — so far.

The B.1.1.7 variant has spread to Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands and Australia.

B.1.1.7. contains a deletion in the genetic code of the coronavirus that helps the new variant evade the body’s immune system in some people.

Not sicker nor deadlier

On Sunday, Public Health England said that there is no evidence the new variant is more likely to cause severe disease or mortality.

“There is absolutely no evidence that this [variant of the virus] is more deadly,” Luban said. 

Maria van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead on COVID-19, told the BBC on Sunday that the WHO is also investigating whether the variant causes more severe illness and can evade antibodies generated by vaccination. 

Confident in his vaccine

Will the new COVID-19 vaccines be effective against the new variant?

Ugur Sahin, CEO of the German pharmaceutical company BioNTech, said he  is confident that his company’s vaccine would be effective against the coronavirus variant. He stressed that experiments would need to be done to reach a definitive conclusion about the vaccine, which it developed along with Pfizer. The results from those tests will not be available for about two weeks, according to a NPR report.

Sahin said that 99% of the proteins that make up the coronavirus variant are the same as the original disease. 

“We can directly start to engineer a vaccine which completely mimics this new mutation, and we could be able to provide a new vaccine, technically within six weeks,” Sahin said.

The United States has tallied more than 18 million Covid-19 cases and more than 319,000 related deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center. 

How To Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 Coronavirus

COVID-19 coronavirus spreads person to person, similar to the common cold and the flu. So, to prevent it from spreading:

  • Wash hands frequently and thoroughly, with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds.
  • Don’t touch your face.
  • Wear a mask to protect yourself and others per CDC recommendations.
  • Keep children and those with compromised immune systems away from someone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • If there is an outbreak near you, practice social distancing.
  • Obtain a flu shot.

Local resources

KSL Coronavirus Q&A 

Utah’s Coronavirus Information 

Utah State Board of Education

Utah Hospital Association

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Utah Coronavirus Information Line – 1-800-456-7707

National Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Commonly asked questions, World Health Organization

Cases in the United States

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