Like a speeding car whose brake lines have been cut, the coronavirus variant first spotted in Britain is spreading at an alarming rate and isn’t responding to established ways of slowing the pandemic, according to Danish scientists who have one of the world’s best views into the new, more contagious strain.
Cases involving the variant are increasing 70% a week in Denmark, despite a strict lockdown, according to Denmark’s State Serum Institute, a government agency that tracks diseases and advises health policy.
“We’re losing some of the tools that we have to control the epidemic,” said Tyra Grove Krause, scientific director of the institute, which this past week began sequencing every positive coronavirus test to check for mutations. By contrast, the United States is sequencing 0.3% of cases, ranking it 43rd in the world and leaving it largely blind to the variant’s spread.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday suggested for the first time that the variant may be more deadly than the original virus. Because it can spread more easily, it can also quickly overwhelm medical systems, turning previously survivable bouts with the virus into perilous ones if hospitals are full and medical care is limited.
Danish public health officials say that if it weren’t for their extensive monitoring, they would be feeling a false sense of confidence right now. Overall, new daily confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Denmark have been dropping for a month.
“Without this variant, we would be in really good shape,” said Camilla Holten Moller, the co-leader of the State Serum Institute group modeling the spread of the virus.
“If you just look at the reproduction number, you just wouldn’t see that it was in growth underneath at all,” she said.
But the British variant is spreading so quickly that Danish authorities project it will be the dominant strain of the virus in their country as early as mid-February.
That would put Denmark ahead of the United States, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Friday that the U.K. variant, known as B.1.1.7, could be prevalent by March.
Danish officials say that as a result, daily coronavirus cases there could quadruple by the beginning of April. Charts from the public health institute project that in the worst-case contagion scenarios, even with a strict lockdown in effect, cases would skyrocket. Under better-case scenarios – if the variant turns out to be less contagious than thought, or if the country can get caseloads down even further right now – the outbreak would stay more under control while they administer vaccines.
“This period is going to be a bit like a tsunami, in the way you stand on the beach and then suddenly you can see all the water retracts,” as cases drop, Krause said. “Afterward, you will have the tsunami coming in and overwhelming you.”
The first warning came to Krause on Dec. 14. British virus hunters had fingerprinted a new strain that appeared to be spreading wildly in pockets of their population. When they uploaded the genetic code to a public database of images, they saw that Danish researchers had posted matching mutations for three positive cases, meaning the more aggressive version of the virus had begun to move beyond Britain.
The variant had arrived in Denmark as early as Nov. 14, and it was already spreading inside its borders.
When the British variant was identified as a dangerous new risk, Denmark already had a fairly tight lockdown in place. But it shuttered primary schools, which had previously been open. It halved the number of people who may gather in public spaces to five. It banned nonessential international travel and imposed strict requirements that fresh arrivals into its borders produce negative test results that are less than 24 hours old.
Denmark has also launched a well-disciplined vaccination program, one of the fastest-running in Europe, although Britain and the United States had a head start because they approved the first vaccines earlier.
Even still, cases involving the U.K. variant are growing exponentially in Denmark. British studies have estimated that the strain is 30 to 70% more contagious than the original. Danish officials, crunching similar data slightly differently, estimate that it is about 20 to 50% more contagious than the original in their country, although they say their numbers are still so small that estimates may be inexact.
As of Jan. 17, the most recent day for which data was available, 464 cases of the U.K. variant had been identified in Denmark. The U.K. variant was 2% of sequenced coronavirus cases the last full week of 2020. By the second week of January, it had risen to 7%.
Worried Danish leaders have tried to explain to their citizens why they need to stay in lockdown, when overall metrics are good enough to suggest the country should have started to reopen weeks ago.
In a long Facebook post last week, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told people to imagine sitting in the top row of Copenhagen’s Parken Stadium, a soccer arena with a capacity of 38,000 people. A dripping tap is filling it up, one drop the first minute, two drops the second, four drops the third. At that rate, Frederiksen said, the park will be filled in 44 minutes. But it will seem almost empty for the first 42 minutes, she said.
“The point is that one only discovers that the water has risen when it is almost too late,” she wrote.
Danish officials say that at this stage, they are in a race to vaccinate as many people as possible before the British variant takes hold. Vaccinations will be the key to stemming the worst impact of its spread, they say. But the vaccines may not come fast enough: Under current plans, they only expect to be able to begin administering vaccinations at a large enough scale to bend down the curve of transmissions in April, and production delays may slow those plans even further.
Frederiksen joined several other European Union leaders at a virtual summit Thursday in urging that the European Medicines Agency, which approves vaccines across the 27-nation bloc, should speed up its processes. The agency is reviewing AstraZeneca’s vaccine – already authorized in Britain – for possible rollout in mid-February. AstraZeneca on Friday warned the E.U. that it wouldn’t be able to deliver as many doses as the bloc had been expecting in the first quarter of this year.
Meanwhile, Copenhagen’s once-bustling bike lanes have fallen quiet as people work from home. Nonessential shops are closed. Preschools are one of the few sectors that remain open – and are a potential target for further tightening.
“It’s this strange silence before the war begins,” said Michael Dall, the chief medical officer at Odense University Hospital, the largest hospital in southern Denmark.
His hospital is opening new coronavirus wards and is confident there will be enough beds even for surging numbers of patients.
But he is fearful that infections among staff and their families could overwhelm his preparation efforts.
“If the mutation is massively more contagious, we’ll end up having even greater problems with the staff challenge,” he said.
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Birnbaum reported from Riga, Latvia, and Selsoe Sorensen reported from Copenhagen.