DANIEL VAUGHAN: New COVID variant poses first challenge for Biden administration

On Jan. 21, 2020, the CDC confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in the United States.

At the time, it was described as “a mysterious coronavirus that has sickened hundreds of people in China.” One of the first couples who got it in the Pacific Northwest is now talking about life over the past year, including 25 days on a ventilator.

It’s hard to believe, but we’ve officially passed the one-year mark with the novel coronavirus from China, SARS-CoV-2, or COVID-19. Nine days after that first confirmed case, the United States halted air travel between the United States and China.

But one year later, we have two active vaccines, with two more on the way from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca. Eli Lilly announced their new therapeutic drug prevented COVID-19 transmission in 80% of patients in a nursing home trial. And all this is on top of the massive work the United States has done to eliminate the demand for PPE, ventilators, masks, and more.

Even better, all the data on COVID-19 suggests we’re now past the peak of the latest surge of the coronavirus, which has lasted several months. The COVID Tracking Project remarked, “[T]he underlying trends are moving in the right direction for most of the country. Even for the states experiencing the worst outbreaks, we are seeing early indications that the rates of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are easing.”

That’s the good news. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.

But as I started warning in October, we faced a grave threat in the form of the virus mutating. As those strains spread, in December, I wrote more precautions were needed to prevent further spread. We’re now at the point where those novel mutations are starting to become the dominant strains of the virus in every nation.

The new strain, B.1.1.7, is from the United Kingdom. At the time of my first columns on this, it was mostly localized to individual cities and towns in the UK. Since then, its spread across that country, across Europe, and now according to the CDC, it’s in 12 U.S. states.

The main threat that we know so far about the B.1.1.7. variant is that it is far more transmissible. Current data suggests that “B.1.1.7 is about 50% more contagious than the original strain.”

COVID-19 is already a highly contagious disease. Increasing its transmission rate can threaten to increase cases and hospitalizations when the country has just started to experience the first signs of relief in months.

The best CDC data right now says that there is “no known difference in clinical outcomes associated with the described SARS-CoV-2 variants” — meaning we don’t think this variant causes more deaths. However, that’s initial data. A study out of the United Kingdom, which has dealt with this variant longer than the U.S., suggests that increased mortality is possible with this virus.

It’ll take more time to study to know anything for sure. Just like COVID-19 itself, we’re continually learning new things and adjusting our approach to this novel disease from China.

The best weapons we have against this new strain are the miraculous vaccines produced by Operation Warp Speed. They are, as of now, unaffected by the new variants, and if you’re vaccinated, the variants pose little to no risk. Those vaccines, though, can’t stop the potential threat B.1.1.7. poses in the form of faster spread. CDC models of the new variant say:

Whether transmission of current variants is increasing…or slowly decreasing…in January, B.1.1.7 drives a substantial change in the transmission trajectory and a new phase of exponential growth. With vaccination that protects against infection, the early epidemic trajectories do not change and B.1.1.7 spread still occurs. However, after B.1.1.7 becomes the dominant variant, its transmission was substantially reduced.

What they’re saying is that despite the best efforts in the US vaccination program, B.1.1.7. is on pace to be the dominant strain by March. That’s why the CDC recommends that “early efforts that can limit the spread of the B.1.1.7 variant, such as universal and increased compliance with public health mitigation strategies, will allow more time for ongoing vaccination to achieve higher population-level immunity.”

The goal is to increase vaccinations and develop a herd immunity that blunts the increased transmission rate.

On the domestic side, this is the first significant challenge of the Biden administration. Biden often criticized the Trump administration on the campaign trail, claiming that everything we were doing throughout 2020 was a failure. Of course, that was untrue if you’re looking at the tools we have available right now and the successes we’ve had.

The new variant poses a direct threat to our growing vaccination program. If Biden has all the plans and experts he claims, he needs to roll them out soon because the new variant is here, and it will become the dominant COVID-19 by March.

One year ago, we were just learning about the threat COVID-19 posed. A year after that, we’re fighting a new variant on our shores.

We’re still on the right path based on the success Operation Warp Speed delivered. But B.1.1.7. requires increased vigilance and ensuring we’re still following basic hygiene protocols like washing hands, wearing masks, maintaining distance, and avoiding large groups.