LONDON — Health experts are warning that even with restrictions, the U.S. is likely to struggle to curb the spread of a highly infectious coronavirus variant, underlining the importance of taking aggressive measures immediately to protect as many people as possible.
The variant, discovered in the U.K and known as B.1.1.7., has an unusually high number of mutations and is associated with more efficient and rapid transmission.
There is no evidence that the mutant strain is associated with more severe disease outcomes. However, because it's more transmissible, additional people are likely to get infected, and this could lead to a higher number of serious cases, hospitalizations and fatalities.
Scientists first detected this mutation in September. The variant of concern has since been detected in at least 44 countries, including the U.S., which has reported its presence in 12 states.
Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that the modeled trajectory of the variant in the U.S. "exhibits rapid growth in early 2021, becoming the predominant variant in March."
The forecast comes as the U.K. struggles to control the impact of its exponential growth.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced lockdown measures in England on Jan. 5, instructing people to "stay at home" as most schools, bars and restaurants were ordered to close. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have introduced similar measures.
The restrictions, which are expected to remain in place in England until at least mid-February, were brought in to try to reduce the strain on the nation's already-stressed hospitals amid an upsurge in Covid admissions.
Government figures released on Thursday said Britain recorded 37,892 new infections with 1,290 deaths. A day earlier, the U.K. recorded an all-time record high of Covid fatalities, when data showed an additional 1,820 people had died within 28 days of a positive Covid test.
Dr. Deepti Gurdasani, clinical epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, stressed that it was clear from the U.K. response that unless aggressive measures were taken immediately, "the variant will rapidly spread geographically, as well as increase in frequency in places where it has established into the community."
Gurdasani cited findings from a closely watched study led by researchers at Imperial College London that showed "no evidence of decline" in Covid rates between Jan. 6 to Jan. 15 despite England being in lockdown, "suggesting that even with restrictions, it is difficult to contain this effectively due to higher transmissibility."
Researchers of the study, published Thursday, warned that U.K. health services would remain under "extreme pressure" and the cumulative number of deaths would increase rapidly unless the prevalence of the virus in the community were reduced substantially.
"All this means that the window for containment is very short. Given the lower active surveillance in the U.S., the variant may have spread wider than anticipated, and policy to contain must reflect this," Gurdasani said.
"This means strict containment efforts not just where the variant was identified, but in all regions where it could have spread. And active surveillance with contact tracing to identify all possible cases, while maintaining strict restrictions to break chains of transmission."
To date, the U.K. has recorded the fifth-highest number of confirmed Covid infections and related deaths in the world.
On his second day in office, President Joe Biden announced sweeping measures to tackle the virus, including the establishment of a Covid testing board to boost testing, address supply shortfalls and direct funds to hard-hit minority communities.
Biden said the executive orders showed that: "Help is on the way." He also warned it would take months "to turn this around."
"The key to it all is reducing interpersonal interactions and the strategy needs to be broadly the same as what has gone before, what has worked elsewhere, and then some," said Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading.
Clarke said U.S. states would need to consider reducing the number of people in retail or leisure environments, for example, and it may be necessary to close bars or restrict their opening hours given studies showing the risk of transmission is higher indoors.
"None of these things that we do to protect ourselves eliminates the risk, none of them makes us Covid-proof — all it does is reduce your chances of getting infected," Clarke said.
"The virus has just pushed back on that with this evolutionary step and it will now be even more difficult to attain the same level of protection."
"Everyone wants to believe vaccines are the solution, and they are going to make a huge difference, but it is not the whole solution," said Kit Yates, a senior lecturer in mathematical biology at the University of Bath and author of "The Math of Life and Death."
Yates said the new U.S. administration should do all it can to roll out Covid vaccines "as fast as you possibly can" to alleviate the pressure on health facilities but insisted this should be part of a multipronged approach.
Some other measures U.S. states should consider, Yates said, include encouraging people to work from home where possible, maintaining physical distancing, improving ventilation within school settings, getting children to wear masks, providing financial support to those self-isolating and using effective test and trace protocols.
"These are the boring, horrible, nonpharmaceutical measures that no one wants, but the alternative is just too scary to think about."