British COVID-19 variant spotted in fourth state

One author says it’s a ‘ticking time bomb’

BOSTON — The latest curveball thrown by COVID-19 has thrown the United Kingdom into a tailspin and, one author warned over the weekend, is a ‘ticking time-bomb’ for the U.S.

The latter assessment came in an article for The Atlantic, written by a sociologist at the University of North Carolina. She warned that a widespread outbreak of B.1.1.7 -- what has become known as the ‘British Variant’ would result in hospitals becoming overwhelmed with seriously ill patients and many more deaths.

The variant, first spotted around London, has 23 mutations -- some of which appear to make it more transmissible.

“Some of these mutations appear to cause better and more efficient binding of the viral spike protein to the cells of the person and allow better viral entry,” said Robin Colgrove, MD, a virologist and interim Chief of Infectious Disease at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. “There’s clearly more to it than that because in addition some mutations seem to help the virus grow to higher levels.”

Colgrove said it’s difficult to estimate accurately just how much more contagious the variant is, but it’s likely 50-100% higher than ‘regular’ COVID-19 -- or 1.5-2 times more contagious.

“It’s not orders of magnitude more. It’s not explosively more, in and of itself,” he said. “But it’s enough to cause a real difference in how it’s spread.”

What the variant apparently doesn’t bring with it is more virulence. Thus the fractional number of those likely to become seriously ill remains similar to that of original COVID-19. But that fraction would be cut from a bigger pie.

The British Variant has already been confirmed in four states. But some suspect it’s been here for some time -- without us even knowing it.

“Only 0.3% of our virus tests are tested for mutations, the UK tests about 10 percent,” said George Abraham, MD, Chief of Medicine at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester. “The variant virus, for sure, may be contributing to the increased efficiency of spread because our second surge far exceeds what we saw in our first surge.”

Nonetheless, the British Variant is not a ‘superbug,’ said Daniel Kuritzkes, MD, an infectious disease physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“This new variant doesn’t go through walls. Doesn’t leap tall buildings in a single bound,” he said. “And it doesn’t have x-ray vision. It can be stopped like every other variant of COVID-19 by wearing a mask and not getting together with other people indoors outside of your immediate household.”