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1st Known U.S. Case Of U.K. Coronavirus Variant Found In Colorado

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The first U.S. case of the COVID-19 variant has been reported in Colorado. Health officials there say they've isolated a case of the variant that spreads faster than the virus that is already rapidly sweeping the country. British scientists identified this variant strain last week, which has now spread in the U.K. and to other countries. Joining us now to talk us through this is NPR science correspondent Richard Harris. Good morning.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So the COVID-19 variant is in the U.S. Tell us about this first known case in Colorado.

HARRIS: The Colorado governor's office identifies the person as a man in his 20s. He's currently in isolation in a largely rural county near Denver. Health authorities are working to identify his contacts. But here's the thing - state health officials say the man had no history of travel. That means he certainly isn't the first person in the U.S. to have this new variant - just the first one we know about. Federal officials hoped they could keep this variant out of the U.S. by cracking down on travel from the United Kingdom, but clearly that didn't work.

FADEL: So it sounds like it could mean he's only the first detected, but possibly not the first to get it. How dangerous is this new strain?

HARRIS: British officials have identified more than 2,000 cases and found that while the virus spreads much more readily than the one that has been sweeping the globe, it is no more likely to cause serious disease. Of course, it's really bad news to have a virus that spreads faster because it means more people will get sick. And when more people get sick, more people will get serious cases, and more people will die.

And that speedy transmission is bad because you know how many hospitals are near the breaking point in this country, and public health officials were already bracing for more intensive spread of the virus as a result of the holiday travel. So this is a bad situation, and it looks like it'll get even worse. And vaccines won't be widespread enough here to help.

FADEL: Now, will the vaccines being administered in the U.S. work against this variant?

HARRIS: Well, health officials don't have a definitive answer. But at this point, they aren't too concerned. Our colleague Joe Palca spoke yesterday with Dr. Anthony Fauci at the National Institutes of Health, and he said it would be quite unusual for a small change in a virus like this to render a vaccine useless.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: You know, you want to keep an eye on it. You can't be too confident, but I would be surprised if it really obviated the effect of a vaccine.

HARRIS: If need be, vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech can quickly be tweaked in response to a new virus. But, you know, if it comes to that, that would really set back vaccination by quite a bit because you'd have to start manufacturing all over. It would be a big mess.

FADEL: Now, we have news this morning that the U.K. just authorized another vaccine.

HARRIS: That's right. It got a nod - gave the nod to a vaccine that had been developed by Oxford University, and it's being developed also by AstraZeneca. It's an inexpensive product, and it's easy to handle, and it has been one of the frontrunners. But, you know, U.S. - and I must say, this is a very important vaccine for global use because it's really easy to use, and it can get to places where the vaccines we're using in this country can't get to.

But, you know, U.S. regulators are unlikely to accept this one here quickly because the study that essentially showed that it was safe and effective did have some concerning shortcomings. So it's actually being retested here in the U.S. right now. And the FDA has signaled that it will await the results of that study before passing judgment.

FADEL: That's NPR's Richard Harris. Thank you for your coverage.

HARRIS: Pleased to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.