New strain causes UK to break single-day record for new COVID cases (and it’s probably already here)

The United Kingdom has topped its own record for new COVID cases two days in row. Today there were 39,237 new cases with nearly a quarter million new cases in just the past week. The worst hit areas are east of London where a newly identified strain of the virus is spreading rapidly.

A pre-print study (meaning it has not been peer-reviewed) published today agrees with previous estimates that the new strain is significantly more transmissible. One of the authors highlighted some of the findings on Twitter:

As Allahpundit pointed out Monday, the good news is that our existing vaccines are still going to be effective against this new stain. The bad news is that because it seems to spread more easily, we’ll probably have less time to get people vaccinated before the sheer number of cases overwhelms hospitals. If you assume about 12% of everyone who gets sick will wind up in the hospital then a surge in illnesses can create a problem for the health system as a whole even if the individuals getting it aren’t any sicker than before.

But are they sicker than before? The jury is still out on that one. The NY Times notes that some evidence from South Africa points to the possibility that this strain could lead to more severe symptoms:

In South Africa, another lineage of the coronavirus has gained one particular mutation that is also found in B.1.1.7. This variant is spreading quickly through coastal areas of South Africa. And in preliminary studies, doctors there have found that people infected with this variant carry a heightened viral load — a higher concentration of the virus in their upper respiratory tract. In many viral diseases, this is associated with more severe symptoms.

So it’s too early to say the new strain is more severe but it’s also not out of the realm of possibility that it is. The other bad news is that there’s some data indicating the new strain is more transmissible in children.

Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, said on Monday that data on infections across the southeast showed the new variant had a statistically significant higher rate of infection among children than other strains…

“During the lockdown in England, we saw a general shift in the age distribution of the virus towards children, and that was true in the variant and non-variant and that is what we would expect, given that we had locked down which reduced adult contacts 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 pillar two cases for the variant in under-15s was statistically significantly higher than the non-variant virus.”

Again, this doesn’t mean the new strain is targeting children or is worse for children than adults. But the original strain wasn’t very good at infecting children. This new strain seems to be closing that gap somewhat, making it more of an equal opportunity threat to everyone. Again, children are still much less likely to become seriously ill than older adults but this could be another way in which the new strain is spreading more quickly.

And if further study bears that out, then it could have an impact on decisions about opening schools in the spring. Until recently, evidence suggested that keeping schools open, especially for young children, didn’t contribute substantially to the spread of the virus. But if the new strain takes over in the next month or so, lots of people may want to reconsider that consensus.

The new strain has already spread to “Denmark, Australia, Italy and the Netherlands” and though it hasn’t been identified here in the U.S. the CDC warned yesterday that it’s probably already here.

“Ongoing travel between the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as the high prevalence of this variant among current UK infections, increase the likelihood of importation,” the CDC said in a statement. “Given the small fraction of US infections that have been sequenced, the variant could already be in the United States without having been detected.”

This has apparently been spreading in the UK since September so there has been plenty of time for it to make it’s way to the U.S.

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