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CAUTION: Variants Ahead - B117 and other variants will explode soon in the US

(crossposted from my COVID-19 newsletter)

I wrote about B.1.1.7, the “UK variant” of SARS-CoV-2, back in December, hoping that it wouldn’t end up being bad news.

Well, now we know, it is bad news — it is more infectious, on the order of 50% - 70% more.

“More infectious” just means that it spreads better, meaning more cases faster, meaning healthcare systems getting strained more quickly, and ultimately meaning, long-term damage to more bodies and more deaths.

Researchers are tracking the emergence of other meaningful variants. For all the variants, the questions are:

  • does it spread better?
  • will the vaccines have reduced effectiveness, and might we need additional kinds of vaccines to respond?
  • will the symptoms and health outcomes it causes be worse?

There is a possible “yes,” at least to some extent, for each of these questions, for different variants. For a few, we know for sure that they spread better.

That wouldn’t be a big deal for a small number of infections… but the problem is that this deal will be exponential.

Sometimes people just mean “bigger” when they say “exponential,” but the technical, mathematical definition of “exponential” means not only bigger, but getting bigger as it gets bigger.


I could say a lot more, but I don’t think I can say it more clearly than that. So I’ll leave you with that, and some of the best reading I’ve come across on the subject, below.

We can meet the challenge of the new variants, but it will require doing all the things we’ve been doing, AND better than we have been. Masks, distance, hand hygiene, bubbles, travel restrictions, vaccine production, vaccine distribution, and actually getting a shot when it’s available to you.


Okay, read some of these:

Denmark’s coronavirus sequencing shows U.K. variant cases exploding (The Washington Post, 2021-01-22)

In a long Facebook post this month, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told people to imagine sitting in the top row of Copenhagen’s Parken Stadium, a soccer arena with a capacity of 38,000 people. A dripping tap is filling it up, one drop the first minute, two drops the second, four drops the third. At that rate, Frederiksen said, the park will be filled in 44 minutes. But it will seem almost empty for the first 42 minutes, she said.

“The point is, you only realize that the water has risen when it’s almost too late,” she wrote.

Time to double mask or upgrade masks as coronavirus variants emerge, experts say (The Washington Post, 2021-01-28)

(A lot of this article talks about expert confusion — should we recommend a medical-grade mask or not? Should we recommend double-masking? Countries in Europe are less wishy-washy, perhaps because they’re closer and more aware of how hard B117 hit the UK. Again, take the variants seriously, it’s time to have better masks when you’re around other people. Along with N95, you should research KN95, KF94, and FFP2.)

What You Can Do to Avoid the New Coronavirus Variant Right Now (The New York Times, 2021-01-19)

“This is the part of the horror film where safety seems in sight, but it is obvious, to those paying attention, that the monster is not dead, and that the worst may be yet to come. We cannot let ourselves be taken by surprise.” (Ezra Klein, 2021-01-28)

“WORRISOME MATH—#B117 variant is so crazy: what happens if there are just 10 cases now, & new UK #B117 has 50% greater transmissibility?” (Eric Feigl-Ding, 2021-01-27)

The Mutated Virus Is a Ticking Time Bomb (The Atlantic, 2020-12-31)

Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variants (CDC, last updated 2021-01-28)

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