Modeling shows UK variant gaining in spring

Expert: Close monitoring of case, hospitalization numbers critical

BOSTON — Dr. Alessandro Vespignani crossed both fingers when asked if the U.S. is finally putting the COVID-19 pandemic in the rearview. But the computational epidemiologist from Northeastern University, whose COVID-19 modeling is used in CDC forecasts, said this is actually a critical time in the pandemic, despite sinking numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

“The issue is that we are in a race,” Dr. Vespignani said. “So on one side, we are trying to immunize as many people as we can. On the other hand, unfortunately, we have the problem of the U.K. variant.”

That problem got significantly worse over the weekend, locally, when the state Department of Public Health announced 19 more cases of B.1.1.7 had been detected in Massachusetts. That brought the total number found in the state to 29 in less than a month. Just four of those cases are linked to overseas travel, meaning the remainder, ominously, are linked to community spread.

Of course, the true number of cases of the U.K. variant is unknown because the United States tests only a small number of positive COVID-19 cases to determine strain.

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“It’s like driving in the night without headlights,” Dr. Vespignani said of the dearth of genetic testing. “Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly what is the prevalence of the variant at the moment.”

But, he said, there is modeling based on the fraction of cases possibly due to the variant. And the news is not good, given B.1.1.7 is considered 35-45% more transmissible than the COVID-19 we’ve come to know and may also be more pathogenic.

“The projections are telling us that the variant will be more and more prevalent by March and could become the dominant strain by April,” Dr. Vespignani said. “So we need to be constantly monitoring if we see any deviation in the epidemic trajectory.”

That would include changes in case numbers and hospitalizations, which might suggest B.1.1.7 is, in fact, gaining a foothold. If it does, a trying time for the public may be ahead.

“There is a lot of fatigue,” Dr. Vespignani said. “You can’t tell people to stay home forever.”

But if the pandemic ratchets up again because of the U.K. variant, they may have to stay home more than they are doing so now.

“What we do now cannot be enough for the new variant,” he added.

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