The mutant British strain of coronavirus is probably already in the United States and could even have originated there, scientists have said.
The new strain – feared to be 70 per cent more transmissible and to spread more easily among children – has led to calls for the US to impose a travel ban on Britain, as dozens of countries including Canada have already done.
But Scott Gottlieb, a former head of the FDA, told CNBC that the new strain ‘is already in the US’ and that a travel ban would not keep it out. ‘As the virus continues to spread around the world, we’re going to start to see more of these variants,’ he warned.
Jeremy Luban, a University of Massachusetts virologist, told the Washington Post that the new strain ‘may have even started here’ – suggesting it might have been detected in Britain first because the UK has a genome sequencing program hailed as the ‘best in the world’ compared to the ‘sporadic’ one in the US.
A scientist on the UK’s advisory panel, Calum Semple, warned on Monday that the new mutation was likely to become the dominant strain around the world – predicting that it would ‘out-compete’ other forms of the virus.
The mutation has been blamed by UK politicians for a resurgence in cases in the south of England which seemed to defy a November lockdown. But other experts have played down concerns, saying the 70 per cent claim is unproven.
Britain’s infection rate, in yellow, has rebounded sharply since the end of a national lockdown at the start of December – a resurgence blamed on the new variant of Covid-19 which has left the UK isolated by a series of travel bans. The US infection rate is still higher than in Britain, with some scientists and politicians saying America should also stop flights from the UK
Outside the UK, cases of the new strain have already been identified in Denmark, Gibraltar, the Netherlands, Australia and Italy, with experts saying it is probably already in the US too
Scott Gottlieb, a former head of the FDA, told CNBC that the new strain ‘is already in the US’ and that a travel ban would not keep it out
At a briefing on Monday, UK scientists said the potential vulnerability of children ‘might explain a significant proportion’ of the overall rise in cases. In England’s most recent national lockdown, schools stayed open while shops, bars and restaurants all closed.
The coronavirus has long been seen as ‘not as efficient in infecting children as it was in adults’. But scientists believe the new strain may have changed this.
‘There is a hint that it has a higher propensity to infect children,’ said Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at University College London and member of an advisory panel.
‘We haven’t established any sort of causality on that, but we can see it in the data,’ Ferguson said. ‘We will need to gather more data to see how it behaves going forward.’
He added: ‘What we’ve seen is, during the lockdown in England we saw a general distribution of the virus towards children, and that was true in the variant and the non-variant, and it is what we would expect, given that we had locked down which reduced adult contact but schools were still open.
‘But what we’ve seen over the course of a five or six-week period is consistently the proportion of [cases] for the variant in under-15s was statistically significantly higher than the non-variant virus. We are still investigating the significance of that.’
Another UK scientist, Professor Wendy Barclay of Imperial College London, said the new virus might ‘put children on a more level playing field’ compared to adults.
The UK government believes the new variant may explain why cases kept rising in parts of England even during the November lockdown.
Since the lockdown ended, cases have risen again across the country – leading to tough new restrictions and this week’s rush to shut down flights.
Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security, said it would ‘not shock me at all to find out’ that the strain is already in the US.
‘I don’t think a travel ban is going to be particularly helpful. We already have out-of-control transmission of all the variants that are circulating in the US here,’ she said.
‘It makes sense that it was detected first in the UK because they have probably the world’s best surveillance program,’ she added.
Cuomo said on Monday that the new strain was ‘another disaster waiting to happen’ after New York was hit hard by the first wave of the pandemic in the spring.
‘When you do not require flights from the UK to be tested, you are allowing thousands of UK passengers to arrive here every day,’ Cuomo said. ‘Based on New York’s experience in the spring, I believe this new, highly contagious strain of Covid-19 is already here,’ he added.
Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and Delta Airlines have already agreed to test all passengers for Covid-19 prior to boarding UK flights for New York.
The White House coronavirus task force is also considering a new rule that would require all passengers arriving from the UK to have a negative test within 72 hours of departure.
Canada has already imposed a 72-hour ban on arrivals from the UK, making it one of more than 40 countries to have shut down travel from Britain.
Outside the UK, cases of the new strain have already been identified in Denmark, Gibraltar, the Netherlands, Australia and Italy.
The countries shown here have already imposed travel bans on Britain, leaving it isolated after it sounded the alarm over the new variant on Saturday
More than 40 countries including all of Britain’s closest neighbours in Europe have already imposed travel bans (pictured are passengers at Gatwick Airport near London)
The hurry to shut down flights came after UK prime minister Boris Johnson sounded the alarm over the new strain at a Saturday press conference.
Blaming the threat of the new strain, Johnson put millions of people back into lockdown in England and drastically tightened Christmas rules for others.
Johnson said the UK was ‘fairly certain the variant is transmitted more quickly, saying that ‘it may be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the old variant’.
Peter Horby, the chair of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, said scientists have ‘high confidence that this variant does have a transmission advantage over other virus variants that are currently in the UK’.
Scientists said the new variant had swiftly become the dominant strain in the south of England – accounting for 60 per cent of cases in London – and could soon do the same across the country.
UK health secretary Matt Hancock said the new strain is ‘out of control’ in the parts of Britain, including London, which are now back in lockdown.
To add to the misery in Britain, the border closures have caused massive queues of lorries unable to get into France, causing concerns about food supplies.
However, politicians and scientists have said there is no evidence that the new strain is more deadly, or that it could interfere with the vaccines already developed.
‘There’s zero evidence that there’s any increase in severity’ from the lat est strain, the WHO’s emergencies chief Dr Michael Ryan said on Monday.
Dr Fauci echoed the finding, also made by the German government, that there is no indication of a threat to the vaccine’s effectiveness.
‘Having said all of that, when you’re dealing with mutations, you have to follow them very closely and don’t take them lightly,’ Fauci said.
Fears over the possible impact of the new variant on the United States come with deaths rising in 19 states and hospitals close to capacity in California
Admiral Brett Giroir, the US assistant secretary for health, said the new strain ‘has become of concern because it is becoming the dominant variant in the UK’.
‘The inference is that because it is the dominant variant, it may be more transmissible – and that may be true. It has not been proven but it may be true,’ he told CNN.
A top German virologist, Christian Drosten, suggested yesterday that the 70 per cent claim had been overblown by politicians and was unproven. After seeing more detailed evidence, he said that ‘cases with the mutant strain are only rising in areas where the overall infection rate is high or rising’.
Dr Mark Siedner, an epidemiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, told NBC10 that it was ‘simply too early to tell whether this is more contagious’.
‘We really don’t know if this is the chicken or the egg, the causation or the correlation,’ he said.
Another UK virologist, Professor Mark Harris, accused the UK government of using the new variant as a ‘smokescreen’ for its failure to bring infections under control.
In addition to all of this, South Africa also says it has identified its own new variant which it it is likewise blaming for a rebound in the infection rate.
South African health authorities said the new variant seemed to spread faster than the previous iteration, but it is not the same strain as the British one.
‘In the UK they have also identified a new variant… there are quite a few similarities between the two lineages… there are also a similar number of mutations’ said Professor Tulio de Oliviera, a member of South Africa’s genomics consortium.
South Africa’s infection rate has more than doubled over the past two weeks, from 6.47 new cases per 100,000 people two weeks ago to 14.68 on Sunday.
Some Covid-19 vaccines, including the one developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, are undergoing clinical tests in South Africa.
While it is generally assumed the new strain originated in Britain, Professor Luban argued that this might simply reflect the UK’s better monitoring systems.
Boris Johnson boasted on Saturday that Britain ‘has by far the best genomic sequencing ability in the world, which means we are better able to identify new strains like this than any other country’.
Calum Semple, the scientist on the UK’s advisory panel, said there were likely to be more variations as the virus comes under ‘pressure’ from vaccines and widespread immunity.
‘The fact is we’ve identified it, we’ve brought it to national attention, we’ve got the attention of the politicians and the World Health Organisation in very quick time,’ he told Sky News.
Virus mutations are common, and have been occurring throughout the pandemic in a process which is ‘natural and expected’, the WHO said.
‘Most of the mutations are trivial. It’s the change of one or two letters in the genetic alphabet that doesn’t make much difference in the ability to cause disease,’ said Dr Philip Landrigan, a former CDC scientist.
However, the current mutation has many mutations – nearly two dozen – of which eight are on the spike protein that the virus uses to infect cells.
Contradicting some scientists, Landrigan said it would be ‘very, very sensible to restrict travel’ from the UK in order to slow the spread of the new strain.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson at the Saturday press conference where he sounded the alarm over the new variant, putting much of the country including London back in lockdown
Engineers and volunteers stand outside a mobile field hospital at the UCI Medical Center in Orange, California on Monday. The number of people hospitalized across California with confirmed COVID-19 infections is more than double the state’s previous peak, reached in July, and a state model forecasts the total could hit 75,000 patients by mid-January
A graph by the Covid Tracking Project shows 18,359 people are hospitalized with the virus in California
The US recorded 1,485 COVID deaths Monday; a record total of 115,351 people are hospitalized with the virus
Fears over the possible impact in America come with deaths rising in 19 states and hospitals close to capacity in California.
Data from the Covid Tracking Project shows 18,359 people in hospital in California as of Monday, with only 30 intensive care beds said to be available in Los Angeles.
All of Southern California and the 12-county San Joaquin Valley to the north have been out of regular ICU capacity for days.
Los Angeles County’s health services director, Dr Christina Ghaly, said plans for rationing care need to be established because ‘the worst is yet to come’.
A document recently circulated among LA hospitals said that instead of trying to save every life, the goal could shift to saving as many as possible – meaning those less likely to survive would not get the same kind of care.
‘Some compromise of standard of care is unavoidable,’ warned a document obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
‘It is not that an entity, system or locale chooses to limit resources, it is that the resources are clearly not available to provide care in a regular manner.’
California’s death toll is up by 43 per cent in the last week, while in Alabama it has risen by 58 per cent and in Delaware by 139 per cent.
Across the country, the US recorded 1,485 deaths and 178,000 cases on Monday, while a record total of 115,351 people are currently hospitalized with the virus.
Also on Monday, president-elect Joe Biden received his first dose of the vaccine on live television as part of a growing effort to convince people the jabs are safe.
Biden, 78, took a dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine at a hospital not far from his Delaware home, hours after his wife, Jill Biden, did the same.
The injections came the same day that a second vaccine, produced by Moderna, will start arriving in states.