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Researcher: UK variant could cause trouble, but US vaccination push could help

Pharmacist Andrea Glennon prepares doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the Tufts Medical Center COVID-19 Vaccination Clinic at the Courtyard Marriott Hotel in Boston. Getting people vaccinated could be key to stopping the coronavirus variant that emerged in Britain from having a big impact here.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

A researcher who has studied the transmissibility of the coronavirus variant that emerged in the United Kingdom says it could cause trouble in the United States, but the vaccination push here could blunt the effect.

“If things follow the same pattern as in the UK, you may still be a month or two away from the worst of it,” said Nicholas Davies, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who was the lead author of a study that examined the B.1.1.7 variant.

But he also said. “You’re much further ahead in vaccinating people in the US than we were when B.1.1.7 hit the UK. ... I think because of that, you will hopefully not see the same magnitude of disaster that we saw here with B.1.1.7. Especially because vaccination will hopefully protect a lot of the most vulnerable elderly people in the US by the time B.1.1.7 gets everywhere and replaces other variants—which I think it almost certainly will.”

“I think it will still cause some trouble, unfortunately,” he added.


The research by Davies and colleagues was released as a preprint in late December and published Wednesday in the journal Science. The study found that the reproduction number, or R0 (the number of cases an infected person will cause during their infected period), could be as much as 90 percent higher with the new variant compared with preexisting variants.

Davies and fellow researchers have also warned that the B.1.1.7 variant may cause more severe disease.

Davies said he was not an expert on the dynamics of the US pandemic, but he was keeping an eye on tests from Florida and California.

“Florida,” he said, “seems to be around where London was around mid-November. By the end of December, we had a very bad situation here.”


In one of a stream of tweets Wednesday, Davies said some high-income countries “have gotten vaccine campaigns well underway before B.1.1.7 hit them, and I hope this will help to mitigate its effect. Lower-income countries may not, and need more support.”

The United Kingdom has been in lockdown since early January, but cases and deaths have been falling, and the government is taking some steps toward loosening restrictions.

William Hanage, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, noted last month that, in addition to vaccinations, one factor in the United States’ favor might be seasonality.

“You know, regular seasonal coronaviruses, they peak in January,” he pointed out. “Taken together, it may mean that the point at which this variant, B.1.1.7, is becoming locally common, is at the part of the year where it doesn’t transmit quite as well or a high proportion of people are vaccinated.”

The B.1.1.7 variant is “covered relatively well” by current vaccines, Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s lead medical adviser on the pandemic, said Wednesday. It has been the most commonly detected variant so far in the United States.

But it’s not the only one that has US officials worried. Officials have said they are monitoring variants that emerged in South Africa and Brazil, as well as New York and California. Officials and experts are concerned that current vaccines may not protect as well against some of those variants.

Martin Finucane can be reached at