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2 new studies find UK B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant more transmissible, but not linked to COVID-19 severity

Two new studies on the B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant that first emerged out of the U.K. found that while the mutation is more transmissible, it did not appear to cause more severe COVID-19 illness. 

One study published on Monday in the medical journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases sampled 496 COVID-19 patients. Study authors said they "found no evidence of an association between severe disease and death" with the B.1.1.7 variant.

But researchers did find increased viral load within the variant, suggesting that it is much more transmissible than the original strain of the novel coronavirus that first caused the worldwide pandemic. 

A separate study published on Monday in the medical journal The Lancet Public Health also found that severity in disease wasn’t associated with the B.1.1.7. variant.

"The lack of change in symptoms identified in this study indicates that existing testing and surveillance infrastructure do not need to change specifically for the B.1.1.7 variant. In addition, given that there was no apparent increase in the reinfection rate, vaccines are likely to remain effective against the B.1.1.7 variant," study authors wrote. 

Concerns around coronavirus variants loom over the medical community, which is already fearing a possible new surge.

On April 12, the seven-day rolling average for daily new cases in the U.S. rose over the past two weeks from 63,236 on March 28 to 70,040 on Sunday, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that more than 36.4% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, the uncertainty around emerging COVID-19 mutations has made medical experts uncertain of whether they pose a risk to reaching herd immunity. 

In an April 6 interview with FOX TV Stations, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said he feels confident in current indications of the enduring efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, but Fauci said that there’s a worrisome "wild card" factoring into the calculation of whether booster shots will be needed down the road: emerging coronavirus variants.

Fauci said he believes that the U.S. hasn’t lost the race to vaccinate, but cited ongoing concerns about the myriad mutations circulating around the world. 

The B.1.1.7 variant that originated in the U.K. has become the prevalent strain of the novel coronavirus throughout the U.S., according to the CDC. 

On April 7, the CDC announced that the B.1.1.7 variant became the most common linage in the U.S.

RELATED: UK COVID-19 variant now ‘most common lineage’ in US, CDC says

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the shift in the variant’s prevalence came alongside data that suggests children and younger adults are becoming more prone to infection and severe illness.

"Across the country, we’re hearing reports of clusters associated with daycare centers and youth sports. Hospitals are seeing more and more younger adults, those in their 30s and 40s, admitted with severe disease," Walensky said. "Data suggests this is all happening as we’re seeing increasing prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 variants, with 52 jurisdictions now reporting cases of variants of concern."

Speaking in an interview April 4 on on "Meet the Press." Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, called the B.1.1.7 variant of the coronavirus "A brand new ballgame."

"In fact, right here in Minnesota, we're now seeing the other aspect of this B.1.1.7 variant that hasn't been talked much about, and that is the fact that it infects kids very readily," Osterholm said.

Fauci agreed with Osterholm’s concerns about the rapidity with which the U.K. variant seems to spread, but expressed confidence in the vaccines’ effectiveness against it.
 
But the effectiveness of existing vaccines against emerging variants is not guaranteed.

"You know, variants are a risk to anyone who is not fully protected against it," Fauci said. "So, for example, there are some variants – like B.1.1.7 – that vaccines cover them very well. There are other variants, like B.1.351 from South Africa, where protection against any symptomatic disease diminishes by a fair amount, but protection against severe disease, hospitalization and deaths is very good."

"So what might happen is that when you get these new variants, some of them may not be protected against when you’re talking about mild-to-moderate disease, but at the same time, people are not going to get severely ill and wind up dying," Fauci explained.