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CDC Says More Virulent British Strain Of Coronavirus Now Dominant In U.S.


The more contagious coronavirus variant first spotted in the U.K. is now dominant in the United States. That is the worrisome news today from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is here with the details.

Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So CDC director Rochelle Walensky shared this information at today's White House COVID briefing. Tell us more about what she said.

STEIN: Yeah. So Ari, you know, this is something that the CDC and others have been worrying would happen and in fact predicted would happen for a while now - that a mutant strain originally spotted in the U.K. - it's officially known as the B.1.1.7 variant - would become the dominant virus spreading around the U.S. And Walensky said that fear has come true.


ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Based on our most recent estimates from CDC surveillance, the B.1.1.7 variant is now the most common lineage circulating in the United States.

STEIN: Basically, it's everywhere, and it's spreading fast.

SHAPIRO: Remind us why this particular variant is so concerning.

STEIN: So first of all, this variant is way easier to catch, so it spreads faster, which makes everything, you know, everyone's been doing to protect themselves way harder. You know, staying away from other people, wearing masks, washing our hands still all work, but people really have to kind of double down on all that to slow down this version of the virus.

And the dominance of this variant is probably one of the reasons why infections have started rising again in the U.S. and why the country could be facing, you know, yet another surge in cases. It's not the only reason, but instead of doubling down on precautions, people are doing the opposite. They're traveling more, crowding into bars and restaurants, baseball stadiums, states are easing up. And second of all, it looks like this variant tends to make people sicker, which may help explain why we're seeing more younger people get really sick now. So the U.S. could see deaths start rising, too.

SHAPIRO: And I guess the big question is how well the vaccines work against this variant.

STEIN: Yeah. So there's some good news. So far, the evidence is yes, the vaccines seem to work. You know, if you look at other countries like Israel, vaccination campaigns tame the pandemic even though the B.1.1.7 variant was dominant. So that is good news.

But as everyone keeps saying, the country is in this race to vaccinate as many people as fast as possible to try to protect them from catching this and, you know, possibly getting really sick and even dying before they can get vaccinated. And the big fear is the more the virus spreads, the greater the chance it or other versions of the virus could mutate more in some way that could help it evade the vaccines.

SHAPIRO: And this is not the only variant circulating. What can you tell us about the others?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's right. There are more contagious homegrown variants, too, like a couple first spotted in California that are now dominant out west. There's one originally spotted in New York City that is now becoming dominant in lots of other places in the northeast.

And there are a couple others first identified overseas. There's that one that was first spotted in South Africa that's really worrisome because it - not only does it spread faster, but the vaccines may not work as well against it. And it's been spotted in at least 36 states. And one first spotted in Brazil that looks like it may also be able to evade the immune system, it's been spotted in 25 states at least, including a big cluster on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

So there may be others. And the big concern is that the U.S. still doesn't really do a really good job of tracking variants closely or spotting new mutants that may evolve.

SHAPIRO: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thank you.

STEIN: You bet, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.