The novel coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, China, in 2019. (Photo Courtesy/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS)

With the new year came a new strain of the coronavirus, which was first found in Britain and named B.1.1.7. It entered the United States on Dec. 29, 2020, and was found in Georgia on Jan. 5.

The Georgia Department of Public Health announced the first case of B.1.1.7 on Jan. 5, which was found in an 18-year-old male with no travel history. There is still only one known case of the new strain in Georgia.

According to the DPH, the new variant is “significantly” more contagious than the original virus, but there is no evidence that the new strain causes more severe illness or increased risk of death.

On Jan. 13, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that 152 of Georgia’s 159 counties were in the red zone for high rates of transmission. 

“The emergence of this variant in our state should be a wake-up call for all Georgians,” said DPH Commissioner Kathleen E. Toomey in a press release. “Even as we begin roll out of a COVID-19 vaccine, we must not let down our guard and ignore basic prevention measures — wear a mask, social distance and wash your hands frequently.”

The science behind the strain

At least four new variants of COVID-19 have been found in the world — in the U.K., South Africa, Nigeria and Brazil. The variants are caused by mutations, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is a normal scientific occurrence. Viruses constantly change through mutations, and new variants of any virus are to be expected. 

In a John Hopkins Medicine article, Stuart Ray, vice chair of medicine for data integrity and analytics at John Hopkins said, “New strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus are detected every week. Most come and go — some persist but don’t become more common.”

There will continue to be new strains of the coronavirus as long as it continues to spread throughout the population — the more people that become infected, the more chances there are for mutations to occur, according to a John Hopkins Medicine article. 

The strain from Britain, while predicted to be more rapidly transmissible than other strains, has not been proven to cause more severe illness or to increase the risk of death, according to the CDC. This strain is the one that has made an appearance in Georgia. Scientists estimate that this new variant is between 50% and 70% more transmissible than older versions, according to The Wall Street Journal. 

It has also been reported by The New York Times that Britain’s strain spreads easier among children and adults, but young children are half as likely as adults to transmit the new strain to others. 

A deeper look at the new strain in the United States

The new strain appeared first in the U.S. in Colorado on Dec. 29, 2020. By Jan. 20, it had entered 19 other states, according to a CDC map

It was reported on Jan. 14 that the new variant accounted for less than 0.5% of infections in the U.S., but the CDC reported on Jan. 15 that their modeling data predicted that the new strain would become the predominant variant in the U.S. by March.

There have been programs launched to track the strain. In November 2020, the CDC launched the National SARS-CoV-2 Strain Surveillance (NS3) program to increase the number of viruses being analyzed. On Jan. 15, the CDC reported that the NS3 program was processing 750 samples nationally per week. 

Along with NS3, the CDC contracted with national reference labs to provide sequence data from across the U.S., and as of Dec. 29, 2020, the labs had committed to sequencing 1,750 samples per week. 

The CDC also contracted with seven universities to conduct genomic surveillance and collaborate with public health agencies. The CDC released $15 million in funding to help with sequencing efforts in state and local health departments. 

SPHERES, or SARS-CoV-2 Sequencing for Public Health Emergency Response, Epidemiology and Surveillance, was launched in May 2020, which is a “national consortium” of laboratories used to coordinate U.S. sequencing efforts outside of the CDC. It is comprised of over 160 institutions. 

According to the New York Times, as of Jan. 6, the U.S. had sequenced 58,560 genomes. According to the World Health Organization, as of Jan. 12, 350,000 sequences had been publicly shared by a few countries. 

“Improving the geographic coverage of sequencing is critical for the world to have eyes and ears on changes to the virus,” Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on COVID-19, said in a WHO news release

The hunt for more information about the new variants is ongoing.