Though it’s become the dominant variant in numerous parts of the U.K., the new, more contagious strain of the coronavirus has only been confirmed to be in the U.S. for less than a week. The first confirmed case was a man in his 20s in Colorado on Dec. 28, the second was a 30-year-old man in California on Dec. 30, and the latest was a man in his 20s in Florida on Dec. 31. While it’s clear these cases share some surface similarities—they’re all among men in their 20s or 30s—there’s another, more subtle factor they share that hints at how widespread the new variant is: None of them have any travel history.
When San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher revealed that his California county had a confirmed case of the new strain, known as B.1.1.7., he said: “Because there is no travel history, we believe this is not an isolated case in San Diego County.” And frankly, it’s likely not isolated to the three states that have confirmed cases, either. The fact that none of these patients have directly been to the U.K.—or any of the other 30-plus countries where the variant has been found—means it’s likely that the new strain is already spreading across the country. It seems the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Anthony Fauci, MD, was right when he said on Good Morning America on Dec. 22, “You really need to assume that it’s here already… I would not be surprised at all if it is already here.”
Read on to learn more about the new strain and how it could affect you, and for more on what the nation’s foremost health agency says, check out The CDC Just Issued This Warning About the New COVID Strain.
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It’s confirmed to be more contagious than the current dominant strain.
On Dec. 31, researchers at Imperial College London released a study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, on the B.1.1.7 variant and found that it is indeed more transmissible than the previous dominant strain of the virus. According to Forbes, that means that a person with COVID-19 caused by the B.1.1.7 strain is likely to pass it on to more people than if they have another variant. “These analyses, which have informed U.K. government planning in recent weeks, show that the new variant of concern, B.1.1.7, has substantially higher transmissibility than previous SARS-CoV-2 viruses circulating in the U.K.,” Neil Ferguson, PhD, one of the scientists from Imperial College London involved in the study, said in a statement.
“This will make control more difficult and further accentuates the urgency of rolling out vaccination as quickly as possible,” added Ferguson, who’s also a member of the the U.K.’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG). And for the signs you could be sick, check out These Are the Most Common Early Signs You Have COVID, Study Finds.
It’s more likely to infect kids and teens than earlier strains.
While children have largely been less affected by COVID than adults up until this point, the new variant may change that. “There is a hint that it has a higher propensity to infect children,” Ferguson told reporters during a press conference on Dec. 21. “We will need to gather more data to see how it behaves going forward. … But what we’ve seen over the course of a five- or six-week period … [is that] the variant in under-15s was statistically significantly higher than the non-variant virus.” And for more updates on COVID, sign up for our daily newsletter.
But if you’ve had COVID already, you’re not likely to be infected by the new strain.
During a Dec. 30 livestream with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Fauci explained that people who have previously been infected by COVID appear to be safe from catching the new strain. “The…thing that they’ve noted in the U.K. is that people who have been infected [by the previously dominant strain] don’t seem to get re-infected by this [mutation], which means that the immunity that’s given to you when you get infected is protective against this particular strain,” Fauci explained. And for a symptom that indicates you could’ve already had COVID, check out If You Have This Subtle Symptom, You Might Have Already Had COVID.
The new vaccines will protect you against this strain, too.
Many people were worried that the recently rolled out Moderna and Pfizer COVID vaccines would no longer be able to protect them from the new variant, but health experts have been quick to reassure the public that the shots already being administered are still effective. “[The B.1.1.7 variant] doesn’t seem to evade protection that’s afforded by the antibodies that are introduced by vaccines,” Fauci told Newsom. And for more vaccine news, check out These 2 States Are Going Against the CDC’s Vaccine Recommendations.
It’s not any more dangerous or more deadly than the current dominant strain.
Yes, the new strain of the coronavirus spreads more easily, but the good news is, it doesn’t appear to be more damaging or fatal. “It looks pretty clear from the U.K. group that, in fact, the transmissibility of the virus is more efficient than the transmission of the standard virus we’ve been dealing with up to now. Namely, it’s just able to bind to the receptors on cells better and therefore it’s transmitted better,” Fauci said during his discussion with Newsom. But, he added, “there’s no indication at all that it increases the virulence, and by virulence, I mean the ability to make you sick or kill you. It doesn’t seem to make it more strong in that regard.” And for a sign that you do have a serious case of the virus, check out This Rare Symptom Could Mean You Have a Severe COVID Case.
You’re already protecting yourself against the new variant by following common health practices.
Just because there’s a slightly different version of the virus spreading doesn’t mean you need to change the precautionary measures you’ve been taking since March. “The things we’ve been talking about all along, we just need to make sure we do it,” Fauci told Newsweek on Dec. 29 of the new strain. “Wearing masks, keeping distances, avoiding congregate settings, doing things outdoors more than indoors, washing your hands frequently—those are the things that stop any virus, regardless of whether it mutates or not.” And for the one health measure you can hold off on, check out The One Thing You Can Stop Doing to Avoid COVID, According to Doctors.