With the worldwide death toll from the coronavirus pandemic topping 2 million on Friday, a new variant of the virus that has begun spreading in the United States has health experts on edge. The variant, designated B.1.1.7, was first identified in the U.K., and researchers estimate it is roughly 50 percent more transmissible than the more common coronavirus strain. On Friday the CDC predicted this variant could become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March.
Yahoo News Medical Contributor Dr. Kavita Patel explains what we can do individually and as a country to minimize the impact of this new variant.
KAVITA PATEL: So what is the state of affairs with the current variants under investigation or variants of concern? The reason these mutations-- or series of mutations, in particular-- are a concern is really because of the higher transmissibility, as well as the potential to make the existing vaccines less effective. So if you break down what we know, we do know that the UK variant of concern is in the United States. We don't know the extent of how far it is in the United States, but it's good reason to believe it's probably widespread in the United States-- likely not responsible for the surges we see in this post-holiday phase, but they could become important.
They are more transmissible but not necessarily more virulent. What that means is that they don't result in a more severe form of an infection or more severe types of disease that lead to death. But something that's more transmissible with the UK variant, there's a 50% increase in transmissibility. And when you have that many more people getting infected, some of those people are going to the hospital. Some of those people might die. So even though the virus mutated is not, itself, more deadly, the fact that it can infect more people more efficiently makes it something concerning.
Me, as an individual, what can I do to protect myself? Number one, keep reinforcing the same precautions we've been talking about for a year now-- wearing a mask, staying at home whenever possible, or keeping a distance and washing your hands. But I'm going to reinforce something that is in one of those precautions, wearing a mask.
You need to really consider the effectiveness of your mask. We now know that the quality of a mask matters, and how you wear it matters. So for example, if you've got a very thin piece of cloth that is just covering your mouth, that is not enough protection.
If possible, it would be incredibly important to wear a higher-grade surgical mask or some of the more commercially available KN95s or N95 masks, if that's available to you in your area. But the better the mask, the better the protection. That question has come up, and I will even recommend that if people don't have a high-quality mask, a double mask, if it's comfortable, worn properly is not a bad idea.
So in addition to what we can do as individuals, what can we do broadly? So for example, we've already seen a requirement for the United States. Anyone traveling into the United States from a destination outside of the US is required to have a negative test. I do want to caution, however, that a negative test doesn't mean you are necessarily truly negative. There is a time window where you can test negative and still be a carrier or be infected with the virus. So it's reassuring, but it is not going to be enough.
The second thing to keep in mind is that we do have effective vaccines, which we do believe are effective against all of these mutations because of the way the vaccines work. So we do believe they are effective. But the key here, in the United States, is to make sure that we get those vaccines into as many arms as possible so that we have the majority of the country vaccinated before any virus, including the existing coronaviruses that are causing COVID, can spread like wildfire.
The third thing to remember is that in hospitals and clinics, we actually do have treatments that have been helpful in both decreasing the mortality, whether people die from this disease, as well as decreasing their length of stay in the hospital. They aren't perfect, and they have been studied and are continuing to be studied extensively. But we do now have outpatient treatments that I can offer to patients in a clinic setting or near a hospital, as well as hospital-based treatment. And we're learning all the time from other colleagues around the world who are also conducting trials for treatments.
So those three things-- number one, these travel precautions or testing requirements, number two, really thinking about the approach of vaccinating as many people as possible, and then number three, really using, when people are sick, the currently available treatments. That's really how we're going to hopefully see 2021 being a transition year and somewhat of a return to normal hopefully towards the end of the year.