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4 Things to Know About the More Contagious UK COVID-19 Variant

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A new variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, has led to a major spike in cases in the U.K. The reason? A combination of mutations in this strain of the coronavirus makes it more contagious. Referred to as B.1.1.7 or B-117, the new variant surfaced in the U.K. in September 2020. Though B-117 doesn’t seem to be more deadly, a faster-spreading version of the coronavirus isn’t good news.

The U.S. is the largest COVID-19 hotspot in the world. As of Friday, the U.S. had more than 23.4 million confirmed cases of the disease and nearly 400,000 deaths. This past week, almost 4,000 people died from COVID-19 with no end to the surge in sight. Experts estimate, however, B-117 will become the dominant strain of the coronavirus in the U.S. by March, furthering increasing COVID-19 cases and deaths.

While a more infectious version of the coronavirus is terrifying, it doesn’t change the measures you need to take to stay safe. It means we need to double down on public health guidelines, use extra caution and get the COVID-19 vaccine when it’s your turn.

Here’s what you should know about the new coronavirus strain:

1. It’s normal for viruses to mutate.

SARS-CoV-2 so far is acting like any other RNA virus — as its replicating person to person, it’s also mutating. The more times the virus replicates by infecting people, the more it mutates. The majority of the coronavirus mutations thus far haven’t impacted how the virus behaves. B-117, and its estimated 23 genetic mutations, is more contagious.

“This is something that’s expected,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told media outlets on a recent livestream. “The more you replicate, the more you mutate. So, when you have a lot of virus that’s circulating in the community, it means it’s infecting a lot of people; it’s replicating a lot.”

2. Here’s what ‘more contagious’ means.

Experts estimate so far B-117 is 30% to 70% more contagious than other strains of SARS-CoV-2. You can think of it as being “stickier” — if you’re exposed to the new variant, you’re more likely to be infected.

SARS-CoV-2 is spread exponentially, which means its growth is measured and predicted using percentages. If COVID-19 cases double each day, the virus increases at a rate of 100%. On Monday, you may have 4,000 COVID-19 cases. At a reproduction rate of 100%, by Tuesday you now have 8,000 cases and by Friday, you’d have 64,000 cases.

A variant that’s 50% more contagious makes this pattern accelerate faster, infects more people, overwhelms the hospital system and leads to more deaths. B-117 was first identified in the U.K. in September 2020 and has so far been identified in 12 states.

3. Stay safe by following public health guidelines.

Public health measures like wearing a mask, social distancing and washing your hands can help slow down the number of infections and save lives. It’s more important than ever to follow the best practices experts have recommending since the beginning of the pandemic. As much as possible:

  • Wear a mask that completely covers your nose and mouth at all times when you leave your house. A surgical mask, N95 mask or mask with a tight weave will offer the most protection
  • Practice social distancing — stay 6 feet or more away from others any time you leave your home
  • Don’t mingle with people who don’t live in your house, whether they’re neighbors down the street or family across the country
  • When leaving your home, stay outdoors or make sure your indoor space has as much ventilation as possible
  • Limit time outside your home: Get essentials delivered when you can, including groceries and medications
  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water often, and use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when you’re not able to wash your hands

You can’t know with 100% certainty if you or those around you have the virus. Assume infection. The more the coronavirus spreads unchecked, the more opportunity it has to replicate, mutate, and potentially become more infectious or deadly. By doubling down on public health guidance, you can keep you and your community safe.

4. COVID-19 vaccines will still work.

According to Fauci, based on what we know so far about the B-117 variation of the coronavirus, existing vaccines, including the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, will still provide protection.

“The mutation does not make people sicker,” Fauci told the Try Guys in a YouTube video. “Nor does it seem to interfere with the protection that’s afforded by the vaccine.”

However, a more contagious strain of SARS-CoV-2 does mean a potential higher threshold to reach herd immunity — and a longer process to move back to more normal life. We don’t know yet for certain, but estimates suggest 70% of the population needs to be immune to COVID-19 to reach herd immunity. The safest way to reach that threshold is to vaccinate as many people as possible. So when you’re eligible, make sure you get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Header image via ZOONO3/Getty Images

Originally published: January 15, 2021
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