Researchers published more evidence Wednesday that the B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant first seen in the UK is more contagious than older circulating versions of the virus and said it’s likely to drive a large new surge of infections without much faster vaccination and more shutdowns, as well.
This particular variant has been seen in at least 82 countries, including 44 US states, plus Washington, DC and Puerto Rico. It is also designated VOC 202012/01 – meaning the first variant of concern to have been identified in December of 2020.
Nicholas Davies of the Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and colleagues took a broad and deep look at the spread of the variant across England. One important measure they looked at is reproductive number – how many other people each infected person infects, on average.
“Using a variety of statistical and dynamic modeling approaches, we estimate that this variant has a 43–90% higher reproduction number than preexisting variants,” they wrote in a report published in the journal Science. “Without stringent control measures, including limited closure of educational institutions and a greatly accelerated vaccine roll-out, COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths across England in 2021 will exceed those in 2020,” they wrote.
“VOC 202012/01 appears unmatched in its ability to outcompete other SARS-CoV-2 lineages in England,” they added. “Concerningly, VOC 202012/01 has spread globally and exhibits a similar transmission increase (59–74%) in Denmark, Switzerland, and the United States.”
By mid-February, B.1.1.7 accounted for 95% of new coronavirus infections in England. Increased transmissibility is the best explanation for the spread of the variant, they said, and they also couldn’t find evidence it was any more deadly or any more likely to cause severe disease. But they said it’s too early to say for sure it’s not any more harmful, and other studies have indicated it might be.
To keep up, England would need to be fully vaccinating 2 million people a week, they said, and even then, school closures or other measures might be needed. Fewer than 1 million people in England have been fully vaccinated so far, according to the UK government. In the US, close to 27 million people have received both doses.