The new, more infectious variant of COVID that has emerged from the U.K. is likely in more U.S. states than currently known, Anthony Fauci has told Newsweek.
The variant, known as B.1.1.7, first appeared in Colorado last week, and has since been identified in California, Florida, New York, and Georgia. It is believed B.1.1.7 is to blame for a spike in COVID cases in the U.K. as it is better at spreading than past forms of the virus. It does not appear to make people sicker.
Fauci, a top immunologist and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Newsweek on Tuesday he would be “very surprised” if the U.K. variant was not in “several more states” and “more widespread in the United States than we are currently detecting it to be.”
He pointed to a forecast he made when the U.K. strain had not yet been reported in the U.S., believing it had not been found at the time.
“I was saying that I’m certain it’s here, we just haven’t detected it yet. And I think it’s pretty clear that if it’s in places like California, and New York and Colorado… that pretty soon it’s going to be in several more states.”
A new variant of a virus arises when it collects significant new mutations. The term “mutation” sounds alarming, but these genetic changes arise normally as part of the life-cycle of viruses. Thousands of mutations of COVID have occurred since the start of the pandemic.
However, sometimes mutations can affect how the virus acts, such as with the U.K. variant, as well as another from South Africa that has not been picked up in the U.S. but Fauci believes is present.
Fauci said the U.K. variant “clearly is impacting the function of the virus” by enabling it to spread more readily between people.
“We take that very seriously. Because if you have greater transmissibility, you will get more cases. When you get more cases, you get more hospitalizations. And when you get more hospitalizations, you ultimately wind up getting more deaths.”
Addressing the U.K. on Monday to announce a third nationwide lockdown, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said B.1.1.7 is 50 to 70 percent more contagious than past forms of COVID. He said the number of hospitalized COVID patients in England was 40 percent higher than the first peak in April, and COVID deaths were up by over 20 percent in the last week.
Asked whether he expects cases in the U.S. to climb as they have done in the U.K. thanks to the variant, Fauci said they were “already spiking,” and highlighted the fact that the country often breaks records for deaths, hospitalizations and cases.
On Tuesday, for instance, 131,195 people were in hospital with COVID in the U.S., setting a new record, according to the COVID Tracking Project, marking the 35th day the country has had over 100,000 hospitalizations.
“We have our own problems with surging cases,” he said. “I don’t think that the U.K. mutation [variant] has been responsible for the rather substantial surge of cases in the United States, because the U.K. variant is here, but it’s not the dominant strain in the United States. But even with that not being the dominant strain, we still have a very steep curve of cases in our country.”
Fauci said people should follow the same public health measures that have been recommended throughout the pandemic to protect themselves from the new variants. These include wearing a mask, both indoors and outdoors, he said, keeping physical distance from people particularly when indoors, avoiding crowds, and washing hands frequently.