CDC says new Covid strain in U.S. could further stress ‘already heavily burdened’ hospitals

CDC headquarters in Atlanta

Elijah Nouvelage | Bloomberg via Getty Images

Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday that a new strain of Covid-19 now circulating in the U.S. could further stress hospitals that are already overwhelmed with coronavirus patients.

Colorado health officials announced Tuesday that they detected the first known case of the new and more infectious strain of the virus that was first discovered in the United Kingdom. A second separate new strain first identified in South Africa may also already be circulating in the U.S. as well, CDC officials said.

“Because the variants spread more rapidly, they could lead to more cases and put even more strain on our already heavily burdened health-care systems,” Dr. Henry Walke, the agency’s Covid incident manager, said on a conference call with reporters.

Walke said the available data indicate that the new variant spreads “more easily and quickly than other strains,” but it does not appear to cause more severe disease or increased risk of death.

He noted that the individual in Colorado who was infected with the new strain of the virus did not have a travel history, which “suggests this variant has been transmitted from person to person in the United States.” He added that considering how widely the variant has spread in the U.K., the arrival of the variant in the U.S. “was expected.”

“Viruses constantly change through mutation and we expect to see new variants emerge over time,” he said. “Many mutations lead to variants that don’t change how the virus infects people. Sometime, however, variants emerge that can spread more easily, like these.”

He added that “experts believe our current vaccines will be effective against” both of the new strains. Scientists are still studying how the new strain responds to Covid-19 treatments like monoclonal antibodies and convalescent plasma.

Dr. Greg Armstrong, the director of the CDC’s Office of Advanced Molecular Detection, said the assertion that the vaccines will be effective against the new variant is based on “experience with similar previous mutations.” He added that immunity induced through previous infection from a different strain is also probably effective against these new strains.

National and state laboratories around the country are conducting testing to determine whether other variants are present in the U.S. and how widely the variant that was discovered in the U.K. is spreading. He said the CDC is ramping up the national surveillance program so that they’ll be receiving 750 samples per week for sequencing.

He added that the agency is contracting with seven academic centers around the country to sequence samples and search for new variants locally. Those centers, he said, are in Boston, Massachusetts New Haven, Connecticut, Athens, Georgia, Nashville, Tennessee, Madison, Wisconsin, and the Scripps Institute in San Diego, California.

“There are a lot of laboratories that have this capacity around the U.S.,” he said of testing for the new variant. “A lot of them are looking for this variant right now.”

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