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Public health expert Ashish Jha sounds alarm on coronavirus variant

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University's School of Public Health
Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University's School of Public HealthJonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The appearance of a more transmissible variant of the coronavirus raises the specter of a “much, much more deadly and destructive pandemic,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown School of Public Health, said Tuesday in a statement.

“This demands an urgent rethinking of our current policy responses,” said Jha, who formerly was head of the Harvard Global Health Institute.

The new variant of the virus “and a close cousin found in South Africa and the UK (but not yet in the US) are deeply worrisome for the next stage of the pandemic,” Jha said.

Massachusetts state officials are operating under the assumption that the variant is already here, Governor Charlie Baker said Tuesday.

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Saying that the new strain had been estimated to be 40 to 70 percent more infectious than the current virus, Jha said, “It is essential we get ahead of this variant as it takes hold across the U.S.”

While the new variant is not believed to be more lethal, it could infect many more people, thus causing a greater number of total deaths, experts have said.

“This new, more infectious variant will change the underlying dynamics of the pandemic, with exponential growth in infections making the virus vastly harder to contain and overburdening our stressed healthcare system. Without significant changes in behavior to once again ‘flatten the curve,’ each new case will result in a greater number of subsequent infections than in the past, making superspreader events more likely and more risky, and making even smaller outbreaks more explosive and harder to contain,” Jha said.

Jha called for communities to tighten restrictions on indoor gatherings “sooner rather than later”; for greater use of rapid tests in schools, workplaces, and homes; and for redoubling efforts to vaccinate as many people as possible.

On the latter point, he called for better on-the-ground vaccination operations and getting “more vaccine doses out quickly.”

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Jha co-authored an opinion piece Sunday in The Washington Post suggesting wider distribution of the first doses of the two-dose vaccine now and deferring distribution of second doses until more become available. Experts are divided on the idea. The US Food and Drug Administration rejected the idea, along with other dose-stretching ideas, Monday.

“The end of the pandemic is on the horizon, and in light of this new accelerated variant, we must deploy every effort to contain spread while we roll out vaccines. ... If we act aggressively now, we can avoid the worst-case scenario of more suffering, more deaths, and more economic damage that awaits us in the upcoming months,” Jha said.



Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.