The new coronavirus variant first discovered in the UK could become the predominant strain in the US by March, according to a new model from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC warned on Friday the B.1.1.7 variant was likely to spread rapidly across the US in the coming months. So far, 76 cases were identified in 10 US states, but scientists warn the actual number of B. 1.17 cases is likely to be higher, as the US lags behind many other countries with its genomic sequencing to identify the variants.
The CDC is now trying to expand sequencing to track the variant and other possible mutations.
According to the CDC model, the new strain is likely to overtake other variants of the disease and dominate by March — though the trajectory of cases will depend on the pace of vaccinations and what other mitigation measures people follow, such as wearing masks.
The US has already been hit far worse by Covid-19 than any other country. There were 3,915 fatalities recorded in the US on Thursday, according to the latest data from the Covid Tracking Project, taking the overall death toll to 379,451. Almost 129,000 people are currently in hospital with the virus.
The CDC model found that if there were no vaccines and the spread of the virus continued to accelerate, the number of cases would continue to rise throughout the spring, only peaking in April.
Assuming the US is able to vaccinate 1m people a day, however, the number of new cases will fall slowly until at least May. If mitigation measures slow the spread enough so that each infected person infects an average of 0.9 other people, the case numbers could drop by almost 85 per cent by the summer.
“Now more than ever, it is important to slow the spread,” the CDC warned.
Joe Biden, the US president-elect, gave further details about his coronavirus pandemic response plans on Friday, as he prepares to take office next week with deaths and hospitalisations from the outbreak in the US hovering near record highs. He has promised to oversee 100m vaccinations in his first 100 days.
The plan includes new rules that would allow retired medical professionals to administer doses as part of a push to increase the number of people carrying out vaccinations. It would also use members of the National Guard to help deliver the vaccine and train people how to administer it, though it stops short of asking troops to inject people themselves, as was requested by one healthcare provider this week.
Mr Biden has also pledged to use the Defense Production Act, under which the government can force companies to produce certain items, to solve bottlenecks in the manufacturing process, such as a lack of glass vials.
The president-elect named new members of his coronavirus task force on Friday morning, including David Kessler, a former head of the Food and Drug Administration, who will lead the new administration’s efforts to distribute vaccines.
As chief scientific adviser to the task force, Dr Kessler will help lead Operation Warp Speed, the federal government’s vaccine distribution programme. He will replace Moncef Slaoui, the former GlaxoSmithKline executive.
Dr Kessler led the FDA from 1990 to 1997, under presidents George HW Bush and Bill Clinton.
Mr Biden said in a statement: “We are in a race against time, and we need a comprehensive strategy to quickly contain this virus.”