CDC warns UK coronavirus strain may become dominant in US, COVID-19 death toll could reach 477K by February

More than 477,000 people could die from COVID-19 in the U.S. by early February, while a new and far more infectious strain of coronavirus could dominate in the country by March, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned.

The warning comes as the U.S. continues its largest vaccination campaign in history, an effort that has gotten off to a slow start.  

The more contagious variant of the coronavirus originally detected in the U.K. could fuel further spread, the CDC said Friday. The agency warned of its rapid growth in early 2021 and said it could become "the predominant variant" by March if the country doesn’t double down on measures to slow it — including higher vaccination efforts nationwide.

The CDC said a national forecast compiled of 39 different modeling groups predicting virus deaths over the next four weeks, used as a real-time tool to help guide policy and planning. It projects between 440,000 to 477,000 Americans could die from the virus by Feb. 6.

A man walks through a COVID Memorial Project installation of 20,000 American flags on the National Mall on Sept. 22, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The national forecast includes models from organizations like Johns Hopkins University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard School of Public Health and UCLA. The numbers are dependent on assumptions made about the levels of social distancing and other interventions in the future.

More than 390,000 people have died from the virus in the U.S., data compiled Jan. 15 by Johns Hopkins University shows. Globally, there have been over 2 million COVID-19 deaths since the virus was first detected just over a year ago in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

While the coronavirus variant, identified as B.1.1.7, is considered to be more infectious than the virus that’s been causing the bulk of U.S. cases so far, there’s no evidence that it causes more severe illness or is transmitted differently. As a result, the CDC said mitigation strategies such as mask wearing, social distancing, hand washing and other prevention strategies can still work.

Only 76 cases of the U.K. variant have been diagnosed so far in the U.S., out of the 23.4 million total COVID-19 cases to date. But scientists at the CDC believe it’s likely that version of the virus is more widespread.

It remains unclear exactly how much more transmissible the B.1.1.7 variant is, but current estimates have said somewhere between 30% and 80% more transmissible than the original strains circulating around the world.  

Other new variants that emerged in the fall of 2020 include B.1.351, which was first detected in South Africa, and one from Brazil, known as P.1, the CDC said. The U.K. banned travel from all of South America and Portugal over concerns over the new variant of the coronavirus in Brazil.

In Ohio, researchers recently discovered a new variant the virus that carries a mutation identical to the newly-discovered U.K. strain, but "likely arose in a virus strain already present in the United States."

Scientists believe current vaccines will still be effective against the variants, but additional research is needed. A recent study of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine suggests it can protect against a mutation found in the U.K. and South African variants.

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Viruses constantly undergo minor changes as they spread from person to person. The slight modifications are used by researchers to track how the coronavirus has moved around the world since it was first detected in 2019. 

This story was reported from Cincinnati.