The Spread Of The Coronavirus Variant From The U.K. : Short Wave Different versions of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus are emerging. Some are spreading quickly around the world, others more slowly — but several have the public health community and researchers worried because they are behaving differently than the older version of the coronavirus. Maddie talks with NPR science correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff about the coronavirus variant first identified in the UK in late 2020 — they discuss how big of a deal it is, how vaccines may be affected, and what needs to happen to slow its spread.

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What The Spread Of Coronavirus Variants Means For The U.S.

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What The Spread Of Coronavirus Variants Means For The U.S.

What The Spread Of Coronavirus Variants Means For The U.S.

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE...


SOFIA: ...From NPR.

Maddie Sofia here with Michaeleen Doucleff. Welcome, Michaeleen - your first-ever time on SHORT WAVE.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

SOFIA: Absolutely. OK, so you are here to talk to us about coronavirus variants. Those are different versions of the coronavirus that are spreading quickly throughout the world.

DOUCLEFF: Yes. They are different versions of the virus. Some are spreading quickly around the world. Some, thank goodness, are spreading a little less quickly. But the key is that these variants are concerning because they seem to behave differently than the older versions of the coronavirus.

SOFIA: There was a variant that was first detected in South Africa. There's another, more recently identified variant that came out of Brazil. And Monday, the first known case of that variant was announced in the U.S., found in Minnesota.

DOUCLEFF: But the variant we know most about and are going to focus on mostly today is a variant that first appeared in the U.K. back in September.


DOUCLEFF: And by mid-December, the new variant had overtaken other forms of the virus.


REETA CHAKRABARTI: The surge in cases, particularly in London and the South East, has left NHS emergency staff at battle stations, according to medical leaders, with health workers exhausted and struggling to cope.


DAVID GREENE: The British government is responding by locking down much of the country.

DOUCLEFF: Then, the variant started popping up all over Europe.


GREENE: Dozens of countries have banned U.K. travelers from entering.

DOUCLEFF: It's been detected in Asia, Australia, the Middle East, South America and here in the States.


ZOHREEN SHAH: The highly contagious U.K. variant now confirmed in at least 19 states.


SOFIA: And in the beginning, it wasn't completely clear whether the variant first identified in the U.K. was more contagious than, let's say, the original coronavirus strain that's been driving the pandemic so far.

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. There are a lot of reasons why a new version of a virus might spread more easily than others. But in the past month or so, studies started confirming, yes, this version of the coronavirus is more contagious than previous versions. And that means wherever it appears, communities need to act quickly to stop it.


SOFIA: So today on the show, the U.K. coronavirus variant is here in the U.S. We'll talk about how big of a deal it is and what needs to happen in order to try and contain it. I'm Maddie Sofia, and this is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


SOFIA: OK, so before we get started, we want to say that we are learning more and more about these variants by the hour. This episode was taped on Tuesday, January 26. So things will change.

DOUCLEFF: Yes, definitely.

SOFIA: OK, Michaeleen, let's start by taking a step back to talk about what a variant actually is. Variants are basically different versions of a virus, like the coronavirus. And those versions pop up because of mutations, which are basically changes in the virus that can happen when the virus makes copies of itself.

DOUCLEFF: For sure. Viruses mutate all the time. That's, like, what they do. Most of the time, the mutations are actually harmful to the virus, so they just disappear. But these new variants that have popped up, which are really concerning, have an unusually large number of mutations - like 20 or so. Many of these mutations were already known to have an effect on the virus in some way. And more than that, Maddie, some of the same mutations are popping up in multiple variants on different continents.

SOFIA: Which means that versions of the virus in different places have independently changed in a really similar way. They share some of those mutations.

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. And that's pretty concerning because it's like the virus has figured out independently on at least three occasions an advantage, like how to spread more easily or possibly evade the body's immune system.

Take this U.K. variant. There's evidence that the variant creates more virus inside a person's nose or respiratory tract. That means when the person sneezes, coughs or even just talks, they expel more virus into the air. And so this virus spreads more easily because there's just more of it out there. There's also evidence that this variant binds more tightly or more easily to human cells, so you need less virus to become infected.

SOFIA: Yeah. I mean, let's talk about that a little bit more. Some studies have shown that the U.K. variant is about 50% more transmissible than the main version of the coronavirus we've been dealing with so far. So, Michaeleen, let's break down what that actually means.

DOUCLEFF: OK. So this is a little complicated, but I know your audience loves data and numbers, so stick with me here.

SOFIA: (Laughter) Yes, we have been known to be number-friendly, Michaeleen, data-curious, if you will.

DOUCLEFF: (Laughter) OK. When a community has an outbreak under control to an extent, on average, one person passes the virus to one person or fewer. That keeps the outbreak under control. What you see in the U.S. in many places is that number can jump a little bit, like one person passes it to 1.3. And then you see really fast exponential growth, and the outbreak is hard to slow down. So it creates this enormous effect on how the virus spreads. Now, with this variant from the U.K., that number can jump even higher to, like, 1.8.

SOFIA: Right, right. And going from 1.3 people to 1.8 might not sound like a big jump, but - OK, say we've got 10 sick people. After about five weeks of being sick, that's the difference between those people getting 91 people sick or 222 people. But the important thing is the difference between those groups doesn't stay constant. It increases over time. It gets bigger and bigger.

EMMA HODCROFT: You very quickly start infecting many, many, many more people than you would have beforehand.

DOUCLEFF: That's Emma Hodcroft. She's an epidemiologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland. She says the variant out of the U.K. doesn't seem to be a lot more deadly. But being more contagious or more transmissible can actually be worse, she says, than being more deadly.

HODCROFT: Perhaps counterintuitively to some people, I think that transmissibility is probably the worst-case scenario or the kind of worse of these two scenarios because if something is more transmissible, then you just get it into a larger population.

SOFIA: So even if this variant isn't more deadly, meaning it doesn't cause more severe symptoms, overall, it could result in more deaths because more people get it.

DOUCLEFF: Exactly. So, you know, one of the most worrying things about this variant from the U.K. is that it continued to spread, and really spread quite rapidly, in England even after the government implemented tougher restrictions. And then that same thing happened again over in Ireland. Once the variant got a foothold there, it took off like a rocket. And this past month, Ireland recorded its most cases ever.

SOFIA: I mean, that is so scary, Michaeleen.

DOUCLEFF: Well, I mean, it is a little scary. And, you know, now that it is here in the U.S., I think everyone needs to be more vigilant, you know? We need to be more careful about wearing masks and keeping 6 feet from others when we're in the grocery line, you know, really anything that you can do to decrease the amount of time that you share air with other people, especially inside, because, you know, Maddie, these measures are the best tools we have to stopping the coronavirus in general, including these variants. So, you know, we really don't need to change what we're doing. We just need to do more of these things - for instance, you know, trying to buy or find a better mask that fits more properly.

SOFIA: Got it, got it. OK, so we've got the potential for a lot of spread. You know, another thing people were worried about is whether any of these variants have changed enough to evade a person's immune system. Basically, if they got the old version of the coronavirus, could they get it again with this new variant? Or could they get the coronavirus variant after getting a vaccine?

DOUCLEFF: Well, as far as being reinfected after getting COVID-19 once, we know that people can get infected with the old variants. It seems to be rare, right? But it definitely happens.

SOFIA: Yeah.

DOUCLEFF: So the big question now is, will the new variants make that easier, and by how much? Now, as far as the vaccine goes, with this variant circulating in the U.K., so far, scientists think the vaccine will still be effective.

SOFIA: Yeah.

DOUCLEFF: The efficacy might go down a small amount, but it's still going to work.

SOFIA: Right. But there is some preliminary data that the variant that came out of South Africa and the variant that came out of Brazil can invade some of the antibodies that react and neutralize the virus. And that may impact how effective the vaccines will be against those variants.

DOUCLEFF: Yes. But remember, Maddie, all that data comes from the laboratory. And we don't know yet how the laboratory results will translate to real life. Plus, on top of that, all that data looked just at how antibodies stop viruses.

SOFIA: Right.

DOUCLEFF: You know, the immune system has a few other tricks up its sleeve to protect us from viruses that look similar to ones it's seen before.

SOFIA: Right.

DOUCLEFF: And no matter what, remember; the vaccines that we have are super, super effective. So even if we lose a little bit of efficacy, they're still going to work. And that's why scientists and public health officials keep telling me over and over again that the best way we can prepare for these new variants is to get as many people vaccinated as possible.

SOFIA: Right. And, you know, Michaeleen, in general, the less people and time these variants have to work with, the better because we're also trying to reduce the possibility that these variants could continue to change for the worse, because that is possible.

DOUCLEFF: Absolutely. I think these variants are showing us the future of SARS-CoV-2. Eventually, these new variants or ones that look a lot like them could be the only variants. One of the researchers I talked to said it's kind of like a cat-and-mouse game between people and the virus. And the way we win is to get enough people vaccinated before these variants take off.

SOFIA: Yeah. I mean, that's one thing I really want to focus on, Michaeleen, which is how big of a deal this is and what needs to happen to prevent this strain from becoming dominant in the U.S. because to me, it kind of feels like the U.S. is back where we were in March, you know, like, looking at a very dangerous virus exploding all over Europe and feeling like we're headed for something similar.

DOUCLEFF: The reality is this is a big deal. Here in the U.S., right now, we're in really bad shape. The number of cases, deaths and hospitalization rates are still widespread and staggering. Every day, Maddie, about 3,000 people die, about the same amount as 9/11. That's happening every day.

And now scientists are predicting the epidemic could get worse - much worse in the next month or so if we don't act now. Like I said earlier, this variant from the U.K.'s already here at low levels for now. But the CDC has computer models that predict this variant could cause huge surges if communities don't vaccinate a big proportion of their population before then.

So I totally agree with you, Maddie. Watching this variant wreak havoc in parts of Europe feels very familiar. And we're not the only ones. Emma, the epidemiologist from earlier, thinks so, too.

HODCROFT: I do feel a little bit of a sense of deja vu right now about the situation that we're in - kind of back to the spring. I think that we're in a situation where a lot of countries are kind of looking at the U.K. right now and saying, oh, you know, isn't that too bad that it's happening there, just like we did with Italy in February.

DOUCLEFF: That said, Emma noted that a big difference between now and March is that we have an incredible weapon against the virus - this vaccine. But we have to use it now, before the variant takes off here in the same way.

HODCROFT: This is our early warning because by the time you have something spreading exponentially in your country, it is much harder to get it under control.

DOUCLEFF: And Emma says that's why these next few months are critical.

SOFIA: OK, so what does that mean on a federal or state level? Like, are there plans? You mentioned a really aggressive vaccine strategy. What else, Michaeleen?

DOUCLEFF: Yes. So mass vaccination is the main focus because what we're trying to prevent is the variant really getting a foothold here in the U.S. Some experts I've talked to have also talked about being ready to implement new restrictions for when the variant begins to take off. One doctor said, you know, if the U.S. is really serious about stopping this variant, we would hand out better masks to people, like N95s or KN95s.

And we also, Maddie, need to put systems in place to make sure we actually keep tabs on this new version of the coronavirus, which means cities and states need to ramp up testing and contact tracing to try and slow down specifically the spread of this variant.

SOFIA: And for our listeners, for individuals that are just, you know, trying to make sense of this, you know, what I will say is, personally, looking at where we are now and some of the data about these variants, as a scientist, as a journalist, this is the most scared I've been in a long while. And, you know, at least in my house, where we have the privilege to stay home, we have been acting like we're in lockdown again, you know, hanging out with our very small pod for our mental health, really only going out for essentials or outdoor exercise. You know, I see this as another chance to make some sacrifices now in order to avoid an even more prolonged fight against this coronavirus.

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. I think we all need to be ready for more lockdowns, you know, stricter lockdowns, more restrictions. You know, the only way England slowed down the outbreak they had was to go into full lockdown, where people had to follow really, really tight restrictions. And for me personally, it's about not cutting those corners anymore, right? So, look; I know we're all experiencing pandemic fatigue, but now is the time to buckle down. You know, wear a better mask to the grocery store, not let the neighbor into the house anymore. You know, just keep those greetings outside. Just really reduce the time you're spending indoors with people other than those that you live with.

SOFIA: Right.

DOUCLEFF: Look, Maddie; nobody knows the future, but I think we just have to mentally prepare for another big wave of cases. And public health officials are really saying if you have the opportunity to get the vaccine, take it.


SOFIA: All right, Michaeleen, thank you so much for this reporting. Stay safe out there.

DOUCLEFF: You too, Maddie. Thank you.


SOFIA: This episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez and edited by Gisele Grayson. Rasha Aridi and Ariela Zebede checked the facts. And Josh Newell was our audio engineer. I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

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