A more contagious coronavirus variant is on the rise in the United States and could become dominant in hot spots like Florida and Southern California “within a few weeks,” according to a testing company that has helped identify the largest share of variant cases in the US.
The company, Helix, has been tracking evidence suggesting cases of B.1.1.7 — a strain first found in the UK — are on the rise, and not just a product of increased genetic sequencing across the country, Helix President Dr. James Lu told CNN late Wednesday.
“The rate of growth here in Florida and Southern California looks a lot like the type of growth that we have seen previously in the UK and Denmark … where B.1.1.7 became the predominant variant strain pretty quickly,” Lu said.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month said modeling showed this variant could become the US’ predominant strain in March and could worsen the spread of the disease.
Rates of new coronavirus cases overall in the US have been dropping. The country has averaged about 136,900 new cases a day over the last week — the lowest average since November 12, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
But Dr. Anthony Fauci has suggested the US isn’t vaccinating people fast enough to stay ahead of new variants, and that could blunt efforts to keep bringing case levels down.
“If the variants and the mutations come, and start becoming dominant, then that’s going to obviate some of the effects of the vaccine,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN this week.
As for how Helix has tracked the B.1.1.7 variant, Lu referenced a small but growing number of samples showing a testing glitch, which signals the presence of a mutation in B.1.1.7. Not all of these samples are B.1.1.7, since the mutation can exist on its own.
There’s been an increasing rate of this glitch — known as S gene dropout — in places like Florida and Southern California. And an increasing proportion of these samples are being confirmed as B.1.1.7 once they’re genetically sequenced, Lu said.
“We’re in a race between the vaccine and the new strains,” Lu said. It’s unclear whether the pace of vaccination will prevent the strain from taking a foothold in places where it’s not already circulating, Lu added.
Helix is one of a number of commercial, academic and public health labs that share information with the CDC.
More than 540 cases of this variant have been found in 33 states, according to the CDC. Most are in Florida and California. The first US case was announced December 29, but the earliest known cases stretch back at least as far as mid-December.
Researchers have said that although the B.1.1.7 variant appears to be more transmissible than previous strains, it is not known to be more deadly or cause more severe disease.
The strain has also been found in at least 80 countries and territories around the globe, the World Health Organization said this week.
Source: CNN Health