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A worrisome chart. The virus is still winning

A patient was transported to a hospital in London on Saturday.Hollie Adams/Getty Images

A simple chart shows why the new coronavirus variants are so worrisome.

This simple chart shows why the new variants of the coronavirus — first detected in Britain and South Africa — are so worrisome:

The chart compares the spread of the virus in each of those two countries with the spread in a group of nearby countries. As you can see, cases have surged in Britain and South Africa since the variants first surfaced — while holding fairly steady in the rest of western Europe and southern Africa.

The new variants may not be the only reason. Britain and South Africa differ from their neighbors in other ways, as well. But there is no obvious explanation for the contrast besides the virus’s mutations.

This suggests the rest of the world may now be at risk of a new Covid-19 surge.

The variants already seem to have spread around much of the world. More than 30 other countries, including the U.S., have diagnosed cases with the variant first detected in Britain, which is known as B.1.1.7. Scientists say that it could soon become the dominant form of the virus.

The B.1.1.7 variant appears to be between 10 percent and 60 percent more transmissible than the original version. One possible reason: It may increase the amount of the virus that infected people carry in their noses and throats, which in turn would raise the likelihood that they infect others through breathing, talking, sneezing, coughing and so on.

As I’ve explained before, the biggest factor that will determine how many more people die from the virus isn’t likely to be the precise effectiveness of the vaccines or even the speed of their rollout. The biggest factor is instead likely to be how much we reduce the spread of the virus over the next few months, through a combination of mask wearing, social distancing and expanded testing. Those efforts can cut caseloads — and, by extension, deaths — more rapidly than a mass vaccination campaign can.

But the U.S. was struggling to hold down new infections even before the variants appeared, and they will probably make the job more difficult.

“I dismissed the news initially because viruses mutate all the time and there have been too many baseless ‘mutant-ninja virus’ doomsaying headlines this year, However, as data on the new variant roll in, there is cause for real concern.”

Zeynep Tufekci wrote in The Atlantic last week.

My colleague Apoorva Mandavilli, in a piece explaining what scientists do and don’t know about the variants, writes that they may end up “exacerbating an unrelenting rise in deaths and overwhelming the already strained health care system.”

In recent days, the number of Americans hospitalized with Covid-19 symptoms has risen to more than 123,000, up from about 95,000 a month ago and 50,000 two months ago. The virus is still winning.

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