The US has now reported multiple cases of the new and apparently more contagious variant of the coronavirus first detected in the UK, triggering concerns about how long the mutant version has been here and how widely it has spread.
The first known case was reported in Colorado on Tuesday. The person infected was later identified as a National Guardsman who had been sent to help out at a nursing home struggling with an outbreak. Health officials have said a second Guard member may also have it.
And on Wednesday, California confirmed its first known case in that nation’s most populous state, which is currently experiencing its deadliest month of the pandemic. The news of a second confirmed case in less than 24 hours offered a strong indication that the infection is spreading more widely in the country.
California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, said he learned of the case in southern California on Wednesday. He made the announcement during an online conversation with Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert.
During the conference, Fauci said: “I don’t think Californians should think that this is odd, it’s to be expected.” Newsom did not provide any other details about the person who was infected.
The Colorado and California cases have raised a host of questions about how the new variant arrived in the US and whether it is too late to stop it now, with top experts saying it is probably already spreading elsewhere in the United States.
“The virus is becoming more fit, and we’re like a deer in the headlights,” warned Dr Eric Topol, the head of Scripps Research Translational Institute. He noted that the US does far less genetic sequencing of virus samples to discover variants than other developed nations do, and thus was probably slow to detect this new mutation.
The Colorado guardsman who became the nation’s first confirmed case is in his 20s, and hadn’t been travelling, officials said. He has mild symptoms and is isolating at home, while the person with the suspected case is isolating at a Colorado hotel while further genetic analysis is done on his sample, officials said.
Several states, including California, Massachusetts and Delaware, are also analyzing suspicious virus samples for the variant, said Dr Greg Armstrong, who directs genetic sequencing at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Experts say that the coronavirus vaccines currently being distributed are likely to still work to protect people against the new variant. Scientists believe that although it is more contagious, it does not cause a more severe illness than other established variants.
However the discovery of US cases has added urgency to the nation’s vaccination drive against Covid-19, which has killed more than 340,000 people nationwide, as a faster-spreading virus could swamp hospitals with seriously ill patients.
Researchers estimate the variant is 50% to 70% more contagious, said Dr Eric France, Colorado’s chief medical officer.
“Instead of only making two or three other people sick, you might actually spread it to four or five people,” France said. “That means we’ll have more cases in our communities. Those number of cases will rise quickly and, of course, with more cases come more hospitalizations.”
Numerous countries have restricted travel from the UK as a result of the new variant. Britain is seeing infections soar and hospitalizations climb to their highest levels on record. The variant has also been found in at least 17 countries, including South Korea, Spain, Australia and Canada.
South Africa has also discovered a highly contagious Covid-19 variant that is driving the country’s latest spike of cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
The CDC issued rules on Christmas Day requiring travelers arriving from Britain to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test. But US health officials said the Colorado patient’s lack of travel history suggests the new variant is already spreading in this country.
Topol said it is too late for travel bans.
“We’re behind in finding it. Colorado is likely one of many places it’s landed here,” he said. “It’s all over the place. How can you ban travel from everywhere?”