RICHMOND, Va. -- A VCU Infectious Disease Epidemiologist predicts the more transmissible U.K. variant known as B117, will dominate the country by the end of the month and is already widely spread throughout Virginia.
"We're in a footrace, between the vaccine and the virus variant," said Dr. Richard Wenzel, infectious disease epidemiologist with VCU.
Wenzel estimated the B.1.1.7 variant already made-up 50% of infections now.
In Virginia, Wenzel said the first case was identified in late January, and by early March there were 20 known cases across the state.
"What we know is those 20 were all parts of the state. So that doesn't give us much comfort. What that means is, this is probably widely spread throughout the state of Virginia," said Wenzel.
Wenzel said the B.1.1.7 variant is more transmissible. With COVID-19 you’d expect to see two secondary infections with every one infection, but the B.1.1.7 variant increases that number to 3.4.
"So, every 10 people infected instead of being 20 is now 34," Wenzel said.
He added that the B.1.1.7 strain has mostly been infecting those under the age of 20, and said that's, in part, because people over 65 are getting vaccinated.
"The other thing that's happening is younger people, the teens are having parties," Wenzel said.
Wenzel emphasized the need to continue to be on your guard. At least for another three to four weeks, as more vaccinations and warm humid weather worked to keep the B.1.1.7 variant at bay.
"We still have good vaccines for this," said Wenzel.
While the vaccines show to be effective against the B.1.1.7 variant, Wenzel warned of other 'wild card' variants like the one from Brazil, and the one from South Africa. They have mutations that are in more critical spots of the spike protein. And that may make them harder to contain.
Wenzel predicted as the virus continued to mutate, we may eventually need a new vaccine. Just like we do each year with the flu.
"It's possible, at least for the next few years, that we may line up in the fall for our Influenza hit in one arm and our coronavirus variant hit in the other," Wenzel said.
Some research suggested the B.1.1.7 variant was more deadly, Wenzel said at this point, that’s more of a hypothesis -- but he is advising everyone to continue you to wash their hands, wear their masks, and distance. Especially those who aren't vaccinated.
"Just to give you an idea how good these things are, we haven't seen very much influenza at all, either last year, when we locked down in the country in March, or this year, all through the fall and winter. And I think it's these mitigation efforts," Wenzel said. "I'm trying to make a case that they actually work, not just for COVID, in fact, but for influenza."
Meanwhile scientists like DCLS Lead Scientist Logan Fink, worked in Virginia's state lab in downtown Richmond to track COVID-19 mutations.
"This is actual date we are seeing in real time," said Fink. "So we can see the different lineages popping up, we can see the increase in the variants over time."
Fink said after identifying variants of concern, they would alert the VDH to try to slow the spread.
"They will take that information and so they prioritize the contact tracing for those kinds of cases, they prioritize the quarantining of those cases," said Fink.