- Michael Osterholm, former advisor to President Joe Biden, said Sunday the coronavirus variant found in the UK could become the dominant strain in the US.
- The variant could trigger a massive surge in US cases in the next six to 14 weeks, he said.
- “If we see that happen … we are going to see something that we have not seen yet in this country,” he said.
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Michael Osterholm, who advised President Joe Biden on COVID-19 during the presidential transition, warned Sunday that the coronavirus variant first found in the UK could become the dominant strain in the US, causing an unprecedented wave of new cases.
“The surge that is likely to occur with this new variant from England is gonna happen in the next six to 14 weeks,” Osterholm said on NBC News on Sunday. “If we see that happen … we are going to see something that we have not seen yet in this country.”
The variant is more contagious than the original virus. Recent studies, including from Pfizer and BioNTech, suggest existing vaccines should still work against it, although the companies have only studied the variant in laboratory conditions.
So far, 467 cases of the variant have been identified in the US, the CDC said Monday. It is in multiple US states, including New York, Florida, and California. Experts believe it was spreading in the US for several weeks before it was first identified.
Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said that "fortunately [the variant] has not shown its ability to evade the protection from the vaccine, but its ability to cause many more infections and serious illness is there."
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on January 22 said evidence suggested the variant could have a higher mortality rate than the original because affected people have higher viral loads. The UK government's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said the variant could be up to 30% more deadly, although he said more evidence was needed.
Some areas in the US are starting to relax COVID-19 restrictions as new cases fall: Illinois is allowing parties of 10 people to sit inside restaurants and bars, for example.
"We're all loosening up right now ... We all want to end our pandemic fatigue and our pandemic anger, we got to turn that ship around too," Osterholm said.
He said that Americans have to "understand that we're going to have to change quickly," adding that, "As fast as we're opening restaurants, we're likely to be closing them in the near term."
Osterholm said that "right now we're flying blind" as coronavirus strains arrive in the country and said to "expect the unexpected in the days ahead."
On Sunday, Maryland officials confirmed the US' third case of the more contagious coronavirus variant found in South Africa. Maryland's state governor said the man had not traveled abroad and likely caught the variant in the community.
Coronavirus has killed over 441,000 Americans and infected 26.2 million, according the New York Times coronavirus tracker.