New COVID-19 Strain 'Almost Certainly' in Multiple States, Biden Advisor Atul Gawande Says

A new variant of the novel coronavirus that was first detected in the United Kingdom is most likely circulating across the United States, a member of the Biden-Harris Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board said Tuesday.

"It is almost certainly in multiple states and I think we will be seeing evidence of that in the days to come," Dr. Atul Gawande told CNN.

The new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus—dubbed the B.1.1.7 lineage—appears to be more transmissible than the original, although a study from Public Health England found that it does not seem to cause more severe illness.

On Tuesday, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced that a man in the state had been infected with the new variant—the first case detected in the United States.

The individual in question is a male in his 20s and has no history of travel, Colorado health officials said. He is currently recovering in isolation in Elbert County.

"An unknown travel history mean that this person picked it up the community," Gawande said. "Exactly how prevalent it is, is the real question. If it's been spreading, how dominant is it?"

"We know it is a more contagious variant and that's a serious concern if it is only just now beginning to spread, given that our hospitals and ICUs, in particular, are already being filled. If this mutation, this mutated virus, which is more contagious, is not widespread yet and beginning to spread, that means it will be even more important to follow the approaches we know work."

Prior to the detection of the variant in Colorado, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had said that the B.1.1.7 lineage was likely already circulating in the United States undetected.

The agency said on December 22 that genetic sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 virus had only been carried out on a small fraction of the roughly 17 million COVID-19 cases in the country. Scientists use genetic sequencing in order to identify new virus strains.

"Ongoing travel between the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as the high prevalence of this variant among current U.K. infections, increase the likelihood of importation," the agency said in a statement. "Given the small fraction of U.S. infections that have been sequenced, the variant could already be in the United States without having been detected."

The Colorado State Laboratory confirmed the case of the new variant and has notified the CDC, while public health officials investigate the case. Officials have not identified any close contacts so far, but are currently working to uncover further potential cases.

"There is a lot we don't know about this new COVID-19 variant, but scientists in the United Kingdom are warning the world that it is significantly more contagious," Polis said in a statement.

"The health and safety of Coloradans is our top priority and we will closely monitor this case, as well as all COVID-19 indicators, very closely. We are working to prevent spread and contain the virus at all levels."

Dr. Atul Gawande
Atul Gawande delivers a speech on September 25, 2015 in Danville, Pennsylvania. Gawande, now a member of the Biden-Harris Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board, said Tuesday that the new U.K. variant is "almost certainly" present in multiple states. Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Geisinger Health System