ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
A new genetic variant of the coronavirus is sweeping through England. At the same time, the country is seeing a huge surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. A big question is whether the variant is causing this surge. Is the new variant more dangerous? As NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports, scientists are just starting to answer that question.
MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Throughout the pandemic, Nick Davies has been watching the virus like a hawk. He's an epidemiologist at the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. He uses computer models to predict how COVID-19 will spread. Last week, when health officials announced the rise of a new variant in the U.K., Davies was skeptical that it was causing the surge.
NICK DAVIES: Because one possible explanation for a rise in hospitalizations could just be that we've just come out of lockdown in these regions, and maybe people have gone back to more normal movement and contact patterns.
DOUCLEFF: All viruses mutate. That's normal. The vast majority of time, the mutations are harmless. They don't make the virus more dangerous. But then a few days later, Davies saw a news presentation from South Africa. The virus is surging there, too. Guess what scientists have also detected there - a new variant that looks similar to the one in England.
DAVIES: I may have been a little bit uncertain before whether this increase we've been seeing in the southeast of England was due to this new variant. But now I think it's a very strong possibility.
DOUCLEFF: And so Davies went to work. He took the data of the new variant and inserted it into computer models. He wanted to know why the variant was spreading so quickly. The models pointed in one direction. It's more contagious.
DAVIES: That increased transmissibility is the easiest way to explain what we're seeing.
DOUCLEFF: The models suggest the variant is about 50% more transmissible than previous versions of the coronavirus. Scientists don't yet know why. It may infect cells more easily, and it may generate more copies of itself inside a person. Together, the research points to a sobering message.
DAVIES: Given all the biological and epidemiological evidence that has come together in the past few weeks, I think the picture is getting more and more consistent with something pretty serious.
DOUCLEFF: Davies and his colleagues published their findings Wednesday on the Web. It hasn't been peer reviewed yet. But Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, says these models should be taken seriously by policymakers. If the variant is indeed 50% more transmissible, it will be difficult to stop its spread.
BILL HANAGE: It's really quite hard, at least given the assumptions in their models, to avoid a situation very much like the spring in terms of hospital-bed capacity and surges without a very high rate of vaccination.
DOUCLEFF: That all said, there's no reason to panic or be scared, Hanage says.
HANAGE: It's not a magic virus. It's a respiratory virus. It's, you know, we have actually come across a large number of ways that we can use to stop it. However, we need to redouble our efforts in that direction.
DOUCLEFF: The new study suggests that people need to be even more vigilant about wearing masks, physical distancing and avoiding large gatherings. And the vaccine needs to roll out quickly.
HANAGE: It suggests that the vaccine needs to be getting out at very, very high rates indeed.
DOUCLEFF: Because, he says, the vaccine will still likely be effective against this new variant. Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.
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