The US may face a rapidly closing window to bring a suspected extra-contagious variant of covid-19 under control.

If the variant strain, first spotted in the United Kingdom, is as infectious as some suspect, it could dominate US case numbers by March, send covid-19 deaths to unprecedented levels, and collide with the rollout of vaccines, research suggests.

British scientists fear that the new strain, which they say is 50% to 74% more transmissible (meaning the average case generates even more follow-on infections), has put wings on the feet of the pandemic in the UK, where covid-19 case numbers have risen swiftly.

More than 20 other countries have now also spotted the variant, including the US, where it was first reported on December 29 in Colorado. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of January 11 there were 72 confirmed variant cases in 10 states. California has 32 cases, Florida has 22, and Georgia, Indiana, and Pennsylvania each have one.

That’s a drop in the bucket given that the US is confirming over 200,000 cases of covid per day, and the rate of infection per million people has tripled since November—even without considering the variant.

Yet the variant is likely more widespread than it appears. Many cases found so far don’t have a clear link to UK travel, meaning that it’s already spreading, unseen, in local communities and could pick up speed quickly.

“If the strain become common in the US,” Tom Frieden, former director of the CDC, said on Twitter, it’s “close to [a] worst-case scenario.” He says political turmoil, overtaxed hospitals, and an unrelenting new form of the virus could create a “perfect storm.”

That appearance of the variant has already led the US to require British visitors to test negative before flying. Some scientific leaders say the US should now consider a coordinated national lockdown period. “I think we have to aggressively consider the upsides, and the downsides, of another lockdown to crush the curve,” says Ali Nouri, president of the Federation of American Scientists. “We are hitting record numbers of cases and deaths, and on top of it we are dealing with a situation where we may be confronted with a highly transmissible variant. It’s going to exacerbate a situation that is already stretching hospitals to the breaking point in some areas. It’s a really bad situation.”

Easier to spread

The variant virus, known as B117, was discovered by UK scientists in December and carries mutations that many researchers believe allow it to spread between people more easily. There is still scientific uncertainty as to whether the variant is truly more transmissible or whether it’s been fueled mostly by superspreading events including holiday gatherings in Europe. However, if more countries, including the US, see the same pattern as the UK, the case for easier spread will look indisputable.

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