What does this new coronavirus strain mean for you?

Vaccines to protect against the coronavirus are finally here. CNN's Elizabeth Cohen breaks down health officials' guidance on the factors that help determine who should get one, and who shouldn't.

Posted: Dec 23, 2020 3:32 PM
Updated: Dec 23, 2020 3:32 PM

A new strain of coronavirus first detected in the UK has prompted dozens of travel bans and widespread concern about what this means for the world.

While scientists dig deeper, here's what this new strain means for you:

Why is this strain important?

The new variant has a series of mutations, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

"Based on these mutations, this variant strain has been predicted to potentially be more rapidly transmissible than other circulating strains of SARS-CoV-2" -- the scientific name for the novel coronavirus, the CDC said.

England's Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said Saturday the new strain "can spread more quickly" and was responsible for 60% of new infections in London.

On Monday, an epidemiologist from the World Health Organization said, "We are hearing that it could spread up to 70% faster."

"What they're seeing is that the reproduction number -- so this is the number of individuals that an infected person transmits to -- has increased from 1.1 to 1.5," said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead for Covid-19.

"I just want to put into context this up-to-70% increase."

Van Kerkhove said it's not yet clear whether that increase "is associated with the variant itself," or if it's due to human behavior.

So far, "there is no evidence that this variant causes more severe illness or increased risk of death," the CDC said Tuesday.

But a strain that spreads faster could lead to more infections, which in turn might lead to more hospitalizations and deaths.

Where is this strain now?

Outside the UK, this strain has been detected in countries such as Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Australia. A similar but separate variant also has been identified in South Africa.

As of Tuesday, the strain "has not been identified through sequencing efforts in the United States, although viruses have only been sequenced from about 51,000 of the 17 million US cases," the CDC said.

"Given the small fraction of US infections that have been sequenced, the variant could already be in the United States without having been detected."

Epidemiologist Dr. Celine Gounder said she thinks this strain is already in the US because it's been circulating in the UK for months before this recent surge.

Public Health England said backward tracing (using genetic evidence) suggests the strain first emerged in England in September. It then circulated in very low levels until mid-November.

"Because this virus has been circulating for some period of time in the UK already, the cat's out of the bag," Gounder said. "It has spread elsewhere, including the United States."

Who's getting infected the most with this strain?

"Most COVID-19 cases from whom this variant has been identified have occurred in people under 60 years of age," the World Health Organization said Tuesday.

That can be problematic because "when people are asymptomatic, they usually are under age 60," CNN Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen said.

"So that may be why this is spreading so quickly -- or part of the reason -- is that many of these people aren't showing symptoms, so they're running around and spreading it."

Of course, people can be contagious for days before they get symptoms. And some young people suffer long-term effects from Covid-19, too.

While severe illness from Covid-19 is relatively rare in children, "there is a hint is that [the new strain] ... has a higher propensity to infect children," said scientist Neil Ferguson, a member of the UK's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG),

But he said more data is needed.

How do I protect myself from this new strain?

This new strain means "we have to work a little bit harder about preventing the spread," Van Kerkhove said.

Gounder agreed. "What we really need to be doing is focusing on the things we know will prevent spread of this new variant -- which is the same thing that works against spread of the coronavirus in general," she said.

"That is masks, social distancing."

Here's the difference between Covid-19 and coronavirus

Will vaccines work against this new strain?

Both the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine have shown efficacy rates of around 95% in clinical trials. But now many wonder if the vaccines would work on variant strains on the virus -- like the one spreading rapidly in the UK.

Pfizer and Moderna said they're testing their vaccines to see if they work against the UK-based strain.

The new strain could mean more people will need to get vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said Tuesday.

"On the topic of herd immunity, there is always the discussion about 60% to 70%," Sahin said.

"But if the virus becomes more efficient in infecting people, we might need even a high vaccination rate to ensure that normal life can continue without interruption."

The novel coronavirus has mutated before, and both vaccines have worked against variations of the virus.

"Up to now, I don't think there has been a single variant that would be resistant to the vaccine," Moncef Slaoui, chief science adviser for Operation Warp Speed, said Sunday.

"We can't exclude it, but it's not there now."

Scientists at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research are examining the variant and expect to know in the next few days whether vaccines might not work against it.

How does this strain impact travel?

At least 24 countries are now banning passenger travel from the UK, including Canada, Russia, Chile, Italy, Iran and Sweden.

So far there are no plans for the US to enact a travel ban against the UK, US Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir said Monday.

British Airways, Delta Airlines and Virgin Atlantic have agreed to require passengers get tested for Covid-19 before boarding planes from the UK to New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

But some health experts say Americans shouldn't be traveling anyway because new Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths are soaring -- and it's easy to infect loved ones without realizing it.

"This is really not the time to be traveling," Gounder said.

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Illinois Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 7 p.m. CT)

Cases: 1361569

Reported Deaths: 24671
CountyCasesDeaths
Cook54504110100
DuPage905031279
Will75456990
Lake67145988
Kane58349771
Winnebago33178474
Madison30500519
McHenry28573285
St. Clair27847513
Peoria23094310
Champaign20618145
Sangamon18724234
McLean18138179
Tazewell16938287
Rock Island14970314
Kankakee14176210
Kendall1303893
LaSalle12536243
Macon10750199
DeKalb9856119
Vermilion9628132
Adams8452123
Williamson7428129
Whiteside7160171
Boone669972
Ogle611181
Grundy588775
Clinton575790
Coles568695
Knox5553145
Jackson502464
Henry497066
Livingston481785
Stephenson475381
Woodford473976
Effingham472972
Macoupin469782
Marion4472115
Franklin444874
Monroe435793
Jefferson4291120
Lee416552
Randolph412984
Fulton391955
Morgan388981
Logan386958
Montgomery371974
Bureau371682
Christian365973
Fayette317455
Perry316960
Iroquois301866
McDonough284847
Jersey268949
Douglas258835
Saline256454
Lawrence240525
Shelby229537
Union226040
Crawford211626
Bond204824
Cass199125
Jo Daviess181024
Clark179933
Warren179746
Pike178852
Ford178246
Wayne177553
Hancock175931
Carroll175136
Richland175140
Edgar170239
White169626
Washington164525
Moultrie161028
De Witt150824
Mason150745
Piatt149714
Clay148143
Mercer146933
Johnson143915
Greene143633
Wabash134612
Massac133940
Cumberland129019
Menard123412
Jasper115018
Marshall106918
Hamilton83315
Schuyler7536
Brown7046
Pulaski6887
Stark63723
Edwards56912
Henderson52514
Calhoun5182
Putnam4823
Scott4781
Alexander46811
Gallatin4584
Hardin38612
Pope3204
Out of IL20
Unassigned02351

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

(Widget updates once daily at 8 p.m. ET)

Cases: 732692

Reported Deaths: 13450
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1002531746
Lake53931975
Allen40779678
St. Joseph35838552
Hamilton35695408
Elkhart28695442
Tippecanoe22419219
Vanderburgh22332397
Porter18838309
Johnson18007379
Hendricks17269315
Clark13007191
Madison12708339
Vigo12470248
LaPorte11970212
Monroe11914170
Delaware10720186
Howard9946216
Kosciusko9438117
Hancock8310141
Bartholomew8078156
Warrick7789155
Floyd7672178
Grant7072174
Wayne7061199
Boone6712101
Morgan6593139
Dubois6162117
Marshall6073111
Cass5826105
Dearborn581878
Henry5758103
Noble562784
Jackson502773
Shelby493196
Lawrence4563120
Harrison436372
Gibson436092
DeKalb429285
Clinton427953
Montgomery425089
Whitley397139
Huntington392980
Steuben389457
Miami382267
Knox372690
Jasper368248
Putnam361660
Wabash354580
Adams341954
Ripley340170
Jefferson331281
White314854
Daviess298199
Wells291881
Decatur285492
Fayette281262
Greene279785
Posey271933
LaGrange267870
Scott266954
Clay260547
Washington241632
Randolph241181
Spencer232431
Jennings230449
Starke217154
Fountain213046
Sullivan212042
Owen201956
Jay196330
Fulton195540
Carroll189420
Orange184154
Perry183537
Rush173725
Vermillion169643
Franklin168435
Tipton163045
Parke146416
Blackford135132
Pike134934
Pulaski116945
Newton108134
Brown102441
Crawford100615
Benton98914
Martin89015
Warren82215
Switzerland7938
Union71010
Ohio57111
Unassigned0417