Coronavirus

Dr. Ashish Jha breaks down why he’s worried about the spread of the U.K. variant

“We still aren’t doing enough genomic surveillance.”

Dr. Ashish Jha. Elise Amendola / AP

Dr. Ashish Jha said Monday the United States is “on the road to recovery” from COVID-19, but there remain a few “bumps ahead.”

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One of the bigger ones is the virus variant first detected in the United Kingdom, B.1.1.7, which spreads more easily and quickly than other strains.

So far, 690 cases of the variant have been detected in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has warned B.1.1.7 could become the dominant source of coronavirus infections in the country in March. Seven cases have been confirmed so far in Massachusetts, according to the CDC

Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said Monday that the United States is seeing positive trends, including falling infection rates and hospitalizations. He also expects vaccines to be “plentiful” by late spring.

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“Am optimistic about late spring and summer,” Jha wrote on Twitter. “But concerned about next couple of months.”

The doctor pointed to data out of Ireland and Germany that illustrates how B.1.1.7 can “quickly overwhelm a nation.” Ireland, he noted, used a lockdown to get spiking infections under control in October. But as the U.K. variant began to circulate, the country saw “exponential growth,” seeing its number of cases increasingly multiply over three weeks. The country went into full lockdown by the end of December

By its peak in early January, Ireland saw 132 new cases per 100,000 people, according to Jha — a rate the U.S. hasn’t ever seen. 

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Our holiday ‘surge’ was small in comparison,” Jha wrote. 

As it is, Jha estimated that “maybe” 2 percent of the COVID-19 infections in the U.S. are being caused by the U.K. variant. 

“But we don’t know because we still aren’t doing enough genomic surveillance,” he wrote. “So most public health experts expect a spike from B117. But we can avoid a horrible spike that flattens our hospitals and kills tens of thousands.”

To prepare and hold off such a surge from the variant, the United States needs to “substantially ramp up” genomic surveillance to search for the strain. 

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As soon as infections start to creep up, action must be taken quickly to stem the spread, he said. 

“Our vaccines will work against B.1.1.7,” Jha wrote. “And they will blunt the effects on high risk people if we can get them into arms fast enough. Today’s analysis shows that B117 will become widespread in the U.S. But it need not flatten us. We have the tools to beat it.”

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