More contagious virus variant now dominant in US, CDC chief says

WASHINGTON – A highly infectious variant of the coronavirus that was first identified in Britain has become the most common source of new infections in the United States, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday. The worrying development comes as officials and scientists warn of a possible fourth outbreak of infections.

Federal health officials said in January that variant B.1.1.7, which started to soar in Britain in December and has since criticized Europe, could become the main source of coronavirus infections in the United States, leading to a huge increase in cases and deaths.

At that time, new cases, hospitalizations and deaths were at an all time high. From that peak, the numbers all declined until the end of February, according to a New York Times database. After several weeks at a plateau, new cases and hospitalizations are increasing again. The average number of new cases in the country reached more than 62,000 per day on Tuesday, mostly concentrated in metropolitan areas of Michigan as well as the New York area. This is an increase of 19% from the figure of two weeks ago.

CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who warned last week that she felt a recurring sense of “impending doom,” said Wednesday that 52 of the agency’s 64 jurisdictions – which include states, some major cities and territories – now reporting cases. of these so-called “worrying variants”, including B.1.1.7.

The death toll, however, continues to decline – potentially a sign that mass vaccinations are starting to protect older Americans and other highly vulnerable populations.

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“These trends point to two clear truths,” Dr. Walensky said. “First, the virus is still holding us back, infecting people and putting them at risk, and we must remain vigilant. And second, we must continue to accelerate our immunization efforts and take individual responsibility for getting immunized when we can. “

B.1.1.7, the first variant to have received attention, concerns 60% more contagious and 67 percent more deadly than the original form of the coronavirus, according to the most recent estimates. The CDC has also tracked the spread of other variants, such as B.1.351, which was first found in South Africa, and P.1, which was first identified in Brazil.

The percentage of cases caused by variants is clearly increasing. Helix, a laboratory testing company, has tracked the relentless rise in B.1.1.7 since the start of the year. Since April 3, he valued that the variant accounted for 58.9% of all new tests.

This variant was found to be most prevalent in Michigan, Florida, Colorado, California, Minnesota, and Massachusetts, According to the CDC Until recently, the rise in the variant was somewhat camouflaged by falling infection rates overall, leading some political leaders to ease restrictions on indoor dining, social distancing and others. measures.

As cases fell, reluctant Americans returned to school and work, against the warnings of some scientists.

Federal health officials are monitoring increasing case reports associated with child care centers and youth sports, and hospitals are seeing more younger adults – people in their 30s and 40s who are admitted with “serious illness.” Dr Walensky said.

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It is difficult for scientists to say exactly to what extent the current infection patterns are due to the increasing frequency of B.1.1.7.

“He’s confused by the reopening that’s underway and the changes in behavior,” said Dr. Adam Lauring, a virologist at the University of Michigan.

But he noted that people were becoming less cautious at a time when they would need to lift their guard against a more contagious variant. “It’s worrying,” he said.

At the same time, the United States currently vaccines an average of about three million people a day, and states have been rushing to make all adults eligible. The CDC reported on Tuesday that around 108.3 million people had received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, of which around 63 million were fully vaccinated. New Mexico, South Dakota, Rhode Island, and Alaska lead the states, with about 25 percent of their total population fully vaccinated.

Scientists hope the vaccination will blunt any potential fourth flare-up.

President Biden increased his vaccination schedule by two weeks on Tuesday, calling on states to make every American adult eligible by April 19. Almost every state has already achieved or are planning to beat this target after initially requesting to do so by May 1.

Variant B.1.1.7 first arrived in the United States last year. In February, a study that analyzed half a million coronavirus tests and hundreds of genomes predicted that this variant could become predominant in the country within a month. At that time, the CDC was struggling to sequence the new variants, which made it difficult to follow up.

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But those efforts have improved dramatically in recent weeks, and will continue to grow, in large part due to $ 1.75 billion in genome sequencing funding in the stimulus package Mr Biden enacted last month. In contrast, Britain, which has a more centralized healthcare system, launched a highly promoted sequencing program last year that allowed it to track the spread of variant B.1.1.7.

“We knew it was coming: this variant is much more transmissible, much more infectious than the parent strain, and that obviously has implications,” said Dr Carlos del Rio, professor of medicine and infectious disease expert at Emory. University. Besides spreading more efficiently, he said, the B.1.1.7 strain appears to cause more serious disease, “which gives you a double whammy.”

Perhaps even more troubling is the emergence of the virulent P.1 variant in North America. First identified in Brazil, it has become the dominant variant there, helping to drive its hospitals to breaking point. In Canada, variant P.1 became a cluster in Ontario, then closed the Whistler ski resort in British Columbia. Wednesday, the National Hockey League Vancouver Canucks have declared at least 21 players and four staff members had been infected with the coronavirus.

“It’s a stark reminder of how quickly the virus can spread and its severe impact, even among healthy young athletes,” team doctor Jim Bovard said in a statement.

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