Covid-19 News: 32 More Countries Have Found the More Contagious Virus Variant First Seen in Britain

From The New York Times

Turkey slammed its doors to travelers from Britain on Friday, saying that it had found 15 infections with the new, more transmissible variant of the virus that first emerged in England. All were among recent arrivals from the United Kingdom.

Turkey’s health minister, Fahrettin Koca, issued a statement saying that the 15 people infected with the variant were in isolation and that their contacts were being traced and placed under quarantine. In countrywide checks, the statement said, the virus had not been detected in anyone other than travelers who arrived from Britain.

The finding brings the number of countries that have detected the variant to at least 33 since Britain announced finding it on Dec. 8, and the number of countries barring travelers arriving from Britain to more than 40. Some countries are also imposing restrictions on travelers, including U.S. citizens, who in recent weeks visited the countries where the variant has been detected.

The Philippines expanded restrictions on travelers from Britain and 18 other countries, adding the United States after a third state, Florida, reported an infection involving the variant. Many countries have already restricted travel from the United States because of its staggering number of infections — the most in the world.

California and Colorado have also found cases involving the variant. None of those infected in the United States had traveled recently, so the new strain is clearly circulating, though at unknown levels.

The variant, known as B.1.1.7., has not been known to lead to more severe cases of Covid-19, but its circulation is likely to portend more infections and more hospitalizations at a time when many countries are already battling surges in caseloads and anticipating more from holiday gatherings and travel.

The list of countries that have identified infections with the variant has been growing rapidly, and as of Friday includes — besides the United States, Britain and Turkey — Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Lebanon, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Portugal, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates.

In South Africa, a similar version of the virus has emerged, sharing one of the mutations seen in B.1.1.7., according to scientists who detected it. That variant, known as 501.V2, has been found in up to 90 percent of the samples whose genetic sequences have been analyzed in South Africa since mid-November.

The British authorities said they have detected two cases of the variant identified in South Africa. In both cases, the infected people had been in contact with people who had traveled to Britain from South Africa in recent weeks. Switzerland, Finland, Australia, Zambia and France have also detected the variant.

And on Dec. 24, the head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, John Nkengasong, announced the discovery of yet another variant, this one in Nigeria, called B.1.207.

Here’s what scientists know about how the coronavirus variant spreads.

A more contagious form of the coronavirus is churning in the United States.

First identified in Britain, the variant already accounts for more than 60 percent of new coronavirus cases in London and its neighboring areas, and there’s worry the variant could further exacerbate cases in the U.S. and place greater strain on an already strained health care system.

A variant that spreads more easily also means that people will need to religiously adhere to precautions like social distancing, mask-wearing, hand hygiene and improved ventilation — unwelcome news to many Americans already chafing against restrictions.

We asked experts to weigh in on the evolving research into this new version of the coronavirus. Here’s what they had to say.

The new variant, known as B.1.1.7, seems to infect more people than earlier versions of the coronavirus, even when the environments are the same.

Scientists initially estimated that the new variant was 70 percent more transmissible, but a recent modeling study pegged that number at 56 percent. Once researchers sift through all the data, it’s possible that the variant will turn out to be just 10 to 20 percent more transmissible, said Trevor Bedford, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Even so, Dr. Bedford said, it is likely to catch on rapidly and become the predominant form in the United States by March.

So far, at least, the variant does not seem to make people any sicker or lead to more deaths. Still, there is cause for concern: A variant that is more transmissible will increase the death toll simply because it will spread faster and infect more people.

The routes of transmission — by large and small droplets, and tiny aerosolized particles adrift in crowded indoor spaces — have not changed.

Some preliminary evidence from Britain suggests that people infected with the new variant tend to carry greater amounts of the virus in their noses and throats than those infected with previous versions.

That finding offers one possible explanation for why the new variant spreads more easily: The more virus that infected people harbor in their noses and throats, the more they expel into the air and onto surfaces when they breathe, talk, sing, cough or sneeze.

With previous versions of the virus, contact tracing suggested that about 10 percent of people who have close contact with an infected person — within six feet for at least 15 minutes — inhaled enough virus to become infected.

“With the variant, we might expect 15 percent of those,” Dr. Bedford said. “Currently risky activities become more risky.”

Each infected person offers opportunities for the virus to mutate as it multiplies. With more than 83 million people infected worldwide, the coronavirus is amassing mutations faster than scientists expected at the start of the pandemic.

The vast majority of mutations provide no advantage to the virus and die out. But mutations that improve the virus’s fitness or transmissibility have a greater chance to catch on.

At least one of the 17 new mutations in the variant contributes to its greater contagiousness. The mechanism is not yet known. Some data suggest that the new variant may bind more tightly to a protein on the surface of human cells, allowing it to more readily infect them.

Muge Cevik, an infectious disease expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a scientific adviser to the British government, said it’s important to look at evidence “as preliminary and accumulating.”

But one thing is for sure, mitigation efforts will need to remain a priority.

“We need to be much more careful over all, and look at the gaps in our mitigation measures,” said Dr. Cevik said.