'It's everywhere': Fears of new Covid wave as more-contagious variant spreads

·4-min read

The first person in the US known to be infected with a new and apparently more contagious variant of the coronavirus has been identified as a Colorado National Guardsman who had been sent to help out at a nursing home struggling with an outbreak.

It comes as health officials say they are in a race with the virus and “it just got a bit faster”.

Doctors believe a second Guard member may have contracted the new variant too.

The cases have triggered a host of questions about how the mutant version circulating in England arrived in the US and whether it is too late to stop it now, with top experts saying it is probably already spreading elsewhere in the country.

The discovery has also added urgency to the nation’s vaccination drive.

Concerned man and woman shown on the street in surgical masks.
The more-contagious UK variant of the coronavirus has been discovered in Colorado as Covid infections continue to grow. Source: AP

The two Guard members had been dispatched on December 23 to work at the Good Samaritan Society nursing home in the small town of Simla, in a mostly rural area about 90 miles outside Denver, said Dr Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist.

They were among six Guard members sent to the home.

A state laboratory began looking for signs of the variant after its spread was announced in England earlier this month, Herlihy said.

Staff and residents at the nursing home who tested positive for the coronavirus are having their samples screened for the variant, and so far no evidence of it has been found, she said.

The confirmed case is in a Colorado man in his 20s who hadn’t been traveling, officials said.

Medical staffer wearing surgical mask looks emotional.
Doctors say they are in a race with Covid and it 'just got a bit faster'. Source: AP

He has mild symptoms and is isolating at his home near Denver, while the person with the suspected case is isolating at a Colorado hotel, Herlihy said.

A call to the nursing home was not immediately returned.

New Covid variant spread from the UK

The alarming new version was first identified in the UK, where infections are soaring and hospitalisations have climbed to the highest levels on record. It has also been found in several other countries.

Scientists in Britain have found no evidence that it is more lethal or causes more severe illness, and they believe the vaccines now being dispensed will be effective against it.

Nevertheless, the discovery overseas led the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue rules on Christmas Day requiring travellers arriving from Britain to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test.

New variant may spark new Covid wave

The variant is probably still rare in the US, but the Colorado patient’s lack of travel history means it is spreading, perhaps seeded by visitors from Britain in November or December, said scientist Trevor Bedford, who studies the spread of Covid-19 at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

“Now I’m worried there will be another spring wave due to the variant,” Bedford said.

“It’s a race with the vaccine, but now the virus has just gotten a little bit faster.”

“The virus is becoming more fit and we’re like a deer in the headlights,” warned Dr Eric Topol, head of Scripps Research Translational Institute,

He noted that the US does far less genetic sequencing of virus samples to discover variants than other developed nations, so the finding in Colorado probably means it is already spreading in other parts of the country and it is too late for travel bans.

“We’re behind in finding it. Colorado is likely one of many places it’s landed here,” Topol said.

“It’s all over the place. How can you ban travel from everywhere?”

Colorado public health officials are conducting contact tracing to determine its spread, and Governor Jared Polis said infections are being monitored closely.

UK under strict lockdown as variant spreads quickly

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reported the weekend before Christmas that the variant was moving rapidly through London and southeast England.

The region was placed under strict lockdown measures, and dozens of countries banned flights from Britain.

France also briefly barred trucks from Britain before allowing them back in, provided the drivers got tested for the virus.

Doctor wearing PPE shown with patient on ventilator.
Medical staff have been stretched to their limits as Covid-19 continues to rage in the US. Source: AP

Japan announced a ban Monday on all nonresident foreigners as a precaution.

New versions of the virus have been seen almost since it was first detected in China a year ago.

It is common for viruses to undergo minor changes as they reproduce and move through a population.

The fear is that mutations will become significant enough to defeat the vaccines.

South Africa has also discovered a highly contagious Covid-19 variant that is driving the country’s latest spike of cases, hospitalisations and deaths.

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