New COVID Strain May Dominate U.S. by March

January 15, 2021 – CDC urges Americans to step up precautions to thwart spread of coronavirus as new ‘super strain’ B.1.1.7 takes hold in United States

New CDC modeling shows new strain could cause more than half of new infections in this country by March, even as the United States rushes to deploy vaccines

“It’s not necessarily what’s going to happen everywhere, but it’s the kind of path we expect to see,” said study author Michael Johansson, PhD, team member at CDC’s COVID-19 response.

The new strain has key genetic changes to its spike protein that help the virus pass from person to person more easily. It is estimated to be around 50% more contagious than the major versions of the coronavirus currently in circulation. It was first detected in the UK and forced England, Ireland and Wales into another round of tight lockdowns as patients overwhelmed hospitals there.

So far, there are only 76 known cases in the United States, representing less than 0.3% of all COVID cases here. But the strain is so contagious that these cases are expected to double every week until this version of the virus becomes the main cause of new infections.

As this super strain takes hold, scientists fear it could cause devastating spikes in the number of cases and deaths. The surges will come as many hospitals are already operating past their breaking points, leading to increased death rates as patients who may have survived fall prey to a lack of resources to treat them, including a shortage of staff, equipment and beds.

New CDC modeling indicates that the B.1.1.7 strain could account for the majority of COVID cases in the United States in March. In a “what if” scenario, modeling shows that the total number of COVID cases increases again in late April and peaks at over 200,000 cases per day if no one gets vaccinated.

Of course, vaccines are currently being shipped to states, making this worst-case scenario unlikely.

Vaccinating at least 1 million people in the United States each day would not completely stop the spread, but it would have to halve the number of new daily cases at the peak, from around 200,000 to 100,000.

This vaccination rate has not yet been reached in the United States. As of Jan. 14, CDC data showed the United States had yet to deliver 10 million doses, less than half of the doses expected to be delivered by the end of last year.

Modeling from the CDC also showed that vaccination was more effective when paired with stricter adherence to measures that stopped the spread of the virus, such as hand washing, wearing masks and social distancing. If the public were more aggressive in following these rules as the United States ramps up its vaccination campaign, it could cut the expected peak by more than two-thirds.

“We really understand that people are tired and that for some it is getting harder and harder to step back and put on their mask, but we have to do what we can now,” says Johansson. “We are far from being out of the woods.”

WebMD Health News


CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, early version, January 15, 2021: “Emergence of SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.7 Lineage – United States, December 29, 2020 – January 12, 2021”.

Michael Johansson, PhD, COVID-19 Response Team, CDC, Atlanta.

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