CDC reports on the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.7 Lineage

Jan. 19, 2021

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that a more highly transmissible variant of SARS-CoV-2, B.1.1.7, has been detected in multiple U.S. states. 

Modeling data indicate that B.1.1.7 has the potential to increase the U.S. pandemic trajectory in the coming months. CDC’s system for genomic surveillance and the effort to expand sequencing will increase the availability of timely U.S. genomic surveillance data. 

The increased transmissibility of the B.1.1.7 variant warrants universal and increased compliance with mitigation strategies, including distancing and masking. Higher vaccination coverage might need to be achieved to protect the public. Genomic sequence analysis through the National SARS-CoV-2 Strain Surveillance program will enable a targeted approach to identifying variants of concern in the U.S. 

Currently, there is no known difference in clinical outcomes associated with the described SARS-CoV-2 variants; however, a higher rate of transmission will lead to more cases, increasing the number of persons overall who need clinical care, exacerbating the burden on an already strained healthcare system, and resulting in more deaths. 

Continued genomic surveillance to identify B.1.1.7 cases, as well as the emergence of other variants of concern in the United States, is important for the COVID-19 public health response. Whereas the SGTF results can help identify potential B.1.1.7 cases that can be confirmed by sequencing, identifying priority variants that do not exhibit SGTF relies exclusively on sequence-based surveillance. 

The experience in the United Kingdom and the B.1.1.7 models presented in this report illustrate the impact a more contagious variant can have on the number of cases in a population. The increased transmissibility of this variant requires an even more rigorous combined implementation of vaccination and mitigation measures (e.g., distancing, masking, and hand hygiene) to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2. These measures will be more effective if they are instituted sooner rather than later to slow the initial spread of the B.1.1.7 variant. 

Efforts to prepare the healthcare system for further surges in cases are warranted. Increased transmissibility also means that higher than anticipated vaccination coverage must be attained to achieve the same level of disease control to protect the public compared with less transmissible variants. 

In collaboration with academic, industry, state, territorial, tribal, and local partners, CDC and other federal agencies are coordinating and enhancing genomic surveillance and virus characterization efforts across the United States. CDC coordinates U.S. sequencing efforts through the SARS-CoV-2 Sequencing for Public Health Emergency Response, Epidemiology, and Surveillance (SPHERES)§§ consortium, which includes approximately 170 participating institutions and promotes open data-sharing to facilitate the use of SARS-CoV-2 sequence data. 

To track SARS-CoV-2 viral evolution, CDC is implementing multifaceted genomic surveillance to understand the epidemiologic, immunologic, and evolutionary processes that shape viral phylogenies (phylodynamics); guide outbreak investigations; and facilitate the detection and characterization of possible reinfections, vaccine breakthrough cases, and emerging viral variants. In November 2020, CDC established the National SARS-CoV-2 Strain Surveillance (NS3) program to improve the representativeness of domestic SARS-CoV-2 sequences. 

The program collaborates with 64 U.S. public health laboratories to support a genomic surveillance system; NS3 is also building a collection of SARS-CoV-2 specimens and sequences to support public health response and scientific research to evaluate the impact of concerning mutations on existing recommended medical countermeasures. 

CDC has also contracted with several large commercial clinical laboratories to rapidly sequence tens of thousands of SARS-CoV-2–positive specimens each month and has funded seven academic institutions to conduct genomic surveillance in partnership with public health agencies, thereby adding substantially to the availability of timely genomic surveillance data from across the U.S. In addition to these national initiatives, many state and local public health agencies are sequencing SARS-CoV-2 to better understand local epidemiology and support public health response to the pandemic. 

The increased transmissibility of the B.1.1.7 variant warrants rigorous implementation of public health strategies to reduce transmission and lessen the potential impact of B.1.1.7, buying critical time to increase vaccination coverage. CDC’s modeling data show that universal use of and increased compliance with mitigation measures and vaccination are crucial to reduce the number of new cases and deaths substantially in the coming months. 

Further, strategic testing of persons without symptoms of COVID-19, but who are at increased risk for infection with SARS-CoV-2, provides another opportunity to limit ongoing spread. Collectively, enhanced genomic surveillance combined with increased compliance with public health mitigation strategies, including vaccination, physical distancing, use of masks, hand hygiene, and isolation and quarantine, will be essential to limiting the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and protecting public health. 

CDC has the report

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