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. – New variants of the coronavirus could lead to a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases and can “dangerously accelerate the trajectory of the pandemic,” US health officials warned Wednesday.
“I know these variants are concerning, especially when we are seeing signs of progress,” said the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, for its acronym in English), Dr. Rochelle Walensky, during a session. briefing at the White House on Wednesday. “I’m talking about them today because I’m worried too,” she added.
“The continued spread of variants that are more transmissible could jeopardize the progress we have made in the last month if we lower our guard,” he explained.
Details on New Covid-19 Variants in Minnesota
In a report released Wednesday, researchers from the CDC and the Minnesota Department of Health detailed cases of the B.1.1.7 variant among eight Minnesotans. This is the variant that was first identified in the UK. Data from previous models have suggested that this variant, which could be more transmissible, could become dominant in the United States in March.
The new study, published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, referenced people ages 15 to 41 whose samples were collected from mid-December to mid-January. Five of them reported symptoms that coincided with those of covid-19 and three were asymptomatic.
Among the eight people, three had a history of international travel in the two weeks before becoming ill. There were two that traveled to West Africa and one that traveled to the Dominican Republic. Three others had traveled to California. One person was exposed to the virus at home and another in the community. None had a history of travel to the UK.
The identification of the variant in Minnesota “underscores the importance of mitigation measures such as the use of masks, social distancing, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated interior spaces, the isolation of people diagnosed with covid-19, the quarantine of close contacts of people with covid-19 and adherence to CDC travel guides, “says the report.
The figures in the US
During the White House briefing, Walensky said that it is “more important than ever to do everything possible to reduce the spread.”
“Fewer cases mean fewer opportunities for variants to spread and fewer opportunities for new variants to emerge,” he said.
On Tuesday, the CDC reported that at least 1,299 cases of the coronavirus variants first detected in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil had been reported in the United States. The vast majority of these cases, 1,277, are from variant B.1.1.7 that was originally detected in the UK. This variant was identified in 41 states and in the city of Washington. Approximately a third of the cases are in Florida.
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Nineteen of these 1,299 cases correspond to variant B.1.351, first identified in South Africa. The P.1 strain, initially linked to Brazil, has been discovered in two cases in Minnesota and one in Oklahoma.
These figures do not represent the total number of cases of this type that are circulating in the United States, but only those found when analyzing positive samples.
The impact of variants on the increase in cases
In a separate report released by the CDC on Wednesday, researchers in Zambia and elsewhere described how the detection of the B.1.351 variant in South Africa coincided with a rapid increase in cases in Zambia. The variant could have become the dominant strain there.
Variant B.1.351 could also be circulating in other parts of southern Africa, where many countries reported rapid increases in the number of covid-19 cases in December and January, according to the report.
“The spread of variant B.1.351 is of public health concern due to the potential for increased transmissibility and thus an increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths,” the researchers wrote.
In a related comment that was also released Wednesday, Walensky, the CDC’s Dr. Henry Walke, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, wrote that genomic sequencing did not identify cases of variant B .1,351 in Zambia from March to early December 2020. However, the variant was identified in 96% of the sequenced samples within a one-week period to mid-December. That corresponds to a 16-fold increase in the incidence of Covid-19 in Zambia from early December to early January.
“The possibility of a similar experience in the United States is a real threat,” Walensky and his co-authors wrote in the medical journal JAMA. However, such an outcome is not inevitable. The United States and other countries have the ability to prevent this outcome from occurring with a strong and immediate public health response, “he added.
Anticipating new variants of covid-19
The authors note that the SARS-CoV-2 Interagency Group of the Department of Health and Human Services was developed to increase inter-agency coordination. This includes being able to quickly identify and monitor the variants that cause concern. Agencies are evaluating the evidence, studying reinfection and assessing therapeutics. They also continue to study how variants affect vaccines and investigate “last minute” infections that occur after vaccination.
Although COVID-19 cases in the United States are declining, they said reducing transmission is key, as is speeding up vaccination.
There is also a push to increase surveillance of genome sequencing in the United States. State health departments handle 750 samples per week, and the CDC is now hiring commercial laboratories to “significantly increase” that surveillance to more than 6,000 samples per week.
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“A concerted and well-coordinated public health effort, coupled with the rapid and widespread adoption of effective vaccines, is essential in anticipating the inevitable evolution of variants that could dangerously accelerate the trajectory of the pandemic,” Walensky and his co-authors wrote.