New York State

How should New York be preparing for the UK coronavirus variant?

The seemingly more transmissible variant is in the United States.

COVID-19 restrictions sign in London in November 2020.

COVID-19 restrictions sign in London in November 2020. chrisdorney/Shutterstock

The coronavirus variant coming out of the United Kingdom is now popping up all over the world, from India to South Africa and nearby Canada. And now the first case has been detected in the United States, Colorado officials announced Tuesday afternoon. Health officials have warned that the variant – which was first found in the United Kingdom in September – was likely already in the country. “You really need to assume that it's here already, and certainly is not the dominant strain, but I would not be surprised at all if it is already here," Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, said last week. Though the variant doesn’t seem to be more deadly, research has indicated it may be as much as 70 percent more transmissible compared with other versions of the coronavirus.

Given what is known about the mutated virus, is there more New York should be doing to prepare? Health experts say the variant is certainly a cause for concern, but can be combated by doubling down on strategies used throughout the pandemic.

Among the top priorities will be to continue aggressively screening for the presence of the mutation in New York. “There's a need for the laboratory infrastructure to be there to be doing this kind of work, because it will shed light in terms of where are new variants arising, what's dominating in the community, where are transmissions,” said Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University. The Wadsworth Laboratory in Albany has begun research into the variant, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week, and has partnered with hospitals throughout the state to test for its presence.

“The Wadsworth Center and other laboratories around the state have sequenced nearly 4,000 New York State COVID-19 specimens since March, including more than 1,000 done at Wadsworth,” Jonah Bruno, a spokesman for the state Department of Health, said in a statement. “As part of an expanded effort to determine whether the variant from the UK is present in New York State, hospitals and clinical laboratories from across the state are submitting COVID-19 specimens to the Wadsworth Center, and Wadsworth is dramatically increasing the number of samples it is sequencing.”

Cuomo has also pushed for travel restrictions for people flying in from the United Kingdom last week. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention afterward announced new testing requirements that will require passengers from the United Kingdom to have a negative COVID-19 test within three days of flying to the United States, but it’s likely the rules will only marginally decrease the risk of spread. “Is it something that's going to make a huge impact on the disease transmission?” said Syra Madad, senior director of the System-wide Special Pathogens Program at New York City Health + Hospitals. “It may have some impact, it may buy time, it may help slow the spread." But now that the variant has been officially detected in the United States, travel restrictions alone would hardly be a panacea.

No evidence has emerged so far indicating that the variant would render vaccines ineffective, and many health experts are saying it's unlikely it would. That means prioritizing a wider vaccine distribution could be an important step to fighting against the variant as well. “The biggest thing that we can be doing right now in New York and elsewhere is to be getting ready to roll that vaccine out and get it into as many people's arms as possible,” said Denis Nash, an epidemiologist at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy.

Reducing overall community spread would also help reduce the possibility of the variant spreading – and even others being created. “The more you have community transmission, the more the virus is running rampant in a given community, the more chances of it evolving and mutating,” Madad said. This means all the usual tactics New York is already using to try and control COVID-19 outbreaks – testing, monitoring hospitalizations and implementing targeted shutdowns – would be the same tools that would be used to tackle the new version of the virus as well. 

“We have to continue doing what we're doing with even more vigor until we get the vaccine coverage that's required,” El-Sadr said.