Since the genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, was first reported in January 2020, thousands of variants have been reported. In the vast majority of cases, these variants, which arise from random genomic changes as SARS-CoV-2 makes copies of itself in an infected person, haven’t raised any alarm among public health officials. But that’s now changed with the emergence of at least three variants carrying mutations that potentially make them even more dangerous.
At the top of this short list is a variant known as B.1.1.7, first detected in the United Kingdom in September 2020. This variant is considerably more contagious than the original virus. It has spread rapidly around the globe and likely accounts already for at least one-third of all cases in the United States . Now comes more troubling news: emerging evidence indicates that infection with this B.1.1.7 variant also comes with an increased risk of severe illness and death .
The findings, reported in Nature, come from Nicholas Davies, Karla Diaz-Ordaz, and Ruth Keogh, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The London team earlier showed that this new variant is 43 to 90 percent more transmissible than pre-existing variants that had been circulating in England . But in the latest paper, the researchers followed up on conflicting reports about the virulence of B.1.1.7.
They did so with a large British dataset linking more than 2.2 million positive SARS-CoV-2 tests to 17,452 COVID-19 deaths from September 1, 2020, to February 14, 2021. In about half of the cases (accounting for nearly 5,000 deaths), it was possible to discern whether or not the infection had been caused by the B.1.1.7 variant.
Based on this evidence, the researchers calculated the risk of death associated with B.1.1.7 infection. Their estimates suggest that B.1.1.7 infection was associated with 55 percent greater mortality compared to other SARS-CoV-2 variants over this time period.
For a 55- to 69-year-old male, this translates to a 0.9-percent absolute, or personal, risk of death, up from 0.6 percent for the older variants. That means nine in every 1,000 people in this age group who test positive with the B.1.1.7 variant would be expected to die from COVID-19 a month later. For those infected with the original virus, that number would be six.
These findings are in keeping with those of another recent study reported in the British Medical Journal . In that case, researchers at the University of Exeter and the University of Bristol found that the B.1.1.7 variant was associated with a 64 percent greater chance of dying compared to earlier variants. That’s based on an analysis of data from more than 100,000 COVID-19 patients in the U.K. from October 1, 2020, to January 28, 2021.
That this variant comes with increased disease severity and mortality is particularly troubling news, given the highly contagious nature of B.1.1.7. In fact, Davies’ team has concluded that the emergence of new SARS-CoV-2 variants now threaten to slow or even cancel out improvements in COVID-19 treatment that have been made over the last year. These variants include not only B1.1.7, but also B.1.351 originating in South Africa and P.1 from Brazil.
The findings are yet another reminder that, while we’re making truly remarkable progress in the fight against COVID-19 with increasing availability of safe and effective vaccines (more than 45 million Americans are now fully immunized), now is not the time to get complacent. This devastating pandemic isn’t over yet.
The best way to continue the fight against all SARS-CoV-2 variants is for each one of us to do absolutely everything we can to stop their spread. This means that taking the opportunity to get vaccinated as soon as it is offered to you, and continuing to practice those public health measures we summarize as the three Ws: Wear a mask, Watch your distance, Wash your hands often.
The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has already claimed the lives of more than 230,000 Americans, the population of a mid-sized U.S. city. As we look ahead to winter and the coming flu season, the question weighing on the minds of most folks is: Can we pull together to contain the spread of this virus and limit its growing death toll?
I believe that we can, but only if each of us gets fully engaged with the public health recommendations. We need all Americans to do the right thing and wear a mask in public to protect themselves and their communities from spreading the virus. Driving home this point is a powerful new study that models just how critical this simple, low-cost step will be this winter and through the course of this pandemic .
Right now, it’s estimated that about half of Americans always wear a mask in public. According to the new study, published in Nature Medicine, if this incomplete rate of mask-wearing continues and social distancing guidelines are not adhered to, the total number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States could soar to more than 1 million by the end of February.
However, the model doesn’t accept that we’ll actually end up at this daunting number. It anticipates that once COVID mortality reaches a daily threshold of 8 deaths per 1 million citizens, U.S. states would re-instate limits on social and economic activity—as much of Europe is now doing. If so, the model predicts that by March, such state-sanctioned measures would cut the projected number of deaths in half to about 510,000—though that would still add another 280,000 lives lost to this devastating virus.
The authors, led by Christopher Murray, Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluations, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, show that we can do better than that. But doing better will require action by all of us. If 95 percent of people in the U.S. began wearing masks in public right now, the death toll would drop by March from the projected 510,000 to about 380,000.
In other words, if most Americans pulled together to do the right thing and wore a mask in public, this simple, selfless act would save more than 130,000 lives in the next few months alone. If mask-wearers increased to just 85 percent, the model predicts it would save about 96,000 lives across the country.
What’s important here aren’t the precise numbers. It’s the realization that, under any scenario, this pandemic is far from over, and, together, we have it within our power to shape what happens next. If more people make the decision to wear masks in public today, it could help to delay—or possibly even prevent—the need for future shutdowns. As such, the widespread use of face coverings has the potential to protect lives while also minimizing further damage to the economy and American livelihoods. It’s a point that NIH’s Anthony Fauci and colleagues presented quite well in a recent commentary in JAMA .
As we anxiously await the approved vaccines for COVID-19 and other advances in its prevention and treatment, the life-saving potential of face coverings simply can’t be overstated. I know that many people are tired of this message, and, unfortunately, mask-wearing has been tangled up in political perspectives at this time of deep divisions in our country.
But think about it in the same way you think about putting on your seat belt—a minor inconvenience that can save lives. I’m careful to wear a mask outside my home every time I’m out and about. But, ultimately, saving lives and livelihoods as we head into these winter months will require a collective effort from all of us.
To do so, each of us needs to follow these three W’s: Wear a mask. Watch your distance (stay 6 feet apart). Wash your hands often.
Reminding others that “masks save lives” isn’t just sound advice. It’s a scientific fact that wearing one in public can help to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
I’m very careful to wear a mask outside my home whenever I’m out and about. I do it not necessarily to protect myself, but to protect others. If by chance I’ve been exposed to the virus and am currently incubating it, I wouldn’t want to spread it to other people. And any of us could be an unknowing superspreader. We owe it to everyone we encounter, especially those who are more vulnerable, to protect them. As my NIH colleague Tony Fauci recently demonstrated, it’s possible to wear your mask even while you’re outside exercising.
But there are still skeptics around. So, just how much does a facial covering protect those around you? Quite a bit, according to researchers who created a sophisticated mathematical model to take a more detailed look . Their model shows that even if a community universally adopted a crude cloth covering that’s far less than 100 percent protective against the virus, this measure alone could significantly help to reduce deaths.
These findings, funded partly by NIH, were published recently in Nature Communications. They come from Colin Worby, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA, and Hsiao-Han Chang, National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan.
The researchers noted several months ago that recommendations on wearing a mask varied across the United States and around the world. To help guide policymakers, the researchers simulated outbreaks in a closed, randomly interacting population in which the supply and effectiveness of crude cloth or disposable, medical-grade masks varied.
Under different outbreak scenarios and mask usages, the researchers calculated the total numbers of expected SARS-CoV-2 infections and deaths from COVID-19. Not surprisingly, they found that the total number of deaths and infections declined as the availability and effectiveness of face masks increased.
The researchers’ model primarily considered the distribution of medical-grade, surgical masks. But because such masks are currently available in limited supply, they must be prioritized for use by health care workers and others at high risk. The researchers go on to note that the World Health Organization and others now recommend wearing homemade face coverings in public, especially in places where the virus is spreading. While it’s true the ability of these face coverings to contain the virus is more limited than medical-grade masks, they can help and will lead to many fewer deaths.
Another recent paper also suggests that while wearing a mask is primarily intended to prevent the wearer from infecting others, it may also help lower the dose, or inoculum, of SARS-CoV-2 that the wearer might receive from others, resulting in milder or asymptomatic infections . If correct, that’s another great reason to wear a mask.
Already, more than 175,000 people in the United States have died from COVID-19. The latest estimates  from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, Seattle, predict that the COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. may reach nearly 300,000 by December 1.
But that doesn’t have to happen. As this new study shows, face coverings—even those that are far from perfect—really can and do save lives. In fact, IHME data also show that consistent mask-wearing—starting today—could save close to 70,000 lives in the months to come. Saving those lives is up to all of us. Don’t leave home without your mask.