New, more transmissible coronavirus strain could increase spread in US

Posted at 12:34 PM, Dec 31, 2020

CHICAGO, Ill. — Health officials in Colorado said this week the new strain of COVID-19 is here in the United States. The mutant coronavirus variant emerged in the United Kingdom in September and has likely been in the U.S. for some time.

Though experts believe this new strain of the coronavirus is not more deadly, it could be up to 70% more transmissible than the previous one.

“The fact that this has mutated is not a surprise,” said Dr. Michelle Prickett, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Over the last few months, Prickett has treated hundreds of COVID-19 patients.

“The fact that this is more infectious means that we're going to have a higher strain potentially on our health care system,” she said.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the new COVID-19 variant has a series of mutations, which is why it’s thought to be more easily transmitted.

“Several mutations that affect the spike protein, which is what allows the virus to get into the cell and replicate and cause more infection, and a higher viral load,” said Prickett.

It’s something that’s concerning amidst the current case surge.

“If this gets into your household, it's 50% or higher more likely to infect everyone in the household,” said Prickett.

One big question public health experts are trying to answer is what implications this has for the recently deployed vaccines.

“The advantage of these mRNA vaccines again is the rapid speed by which they can be developed produced and manufactured,” said Dr. Grace Lee, an infectious disease specialist and professor of pediatrics at Stanford University’s School of Medicine.

Dr. Lee says that allows for the vaccines to be quickly reformulated to adjust to new strains if necessary.

Moderna says it expects that their vaccine-induced immunity would be protective against the variants recently described in the U.K., and that it “will be performing additional tests in the coming weeks to confirm this expectation.”

Pfizer is also investigating the impact of the mutant virus strain.

“I don't think it's cause for absolute alarm,” said Prickett. “I think it reinforces our need to be vigilant and consistent and not let our guard down.”

That means that social distancing, mask-wearing and handwashing may become more important than ever as this strain spreads.