Infections in the US down about 50%. Hospitalizations down about 33%. Vaccines plentiful by late spring. All good news, right? But on the road to recovery, we still have a few bumps ahead. A big one is B117 – the Covid-19 UK variant. Here is why it is so concerning.

First published in February 2021.

I am optimistic about late spring and summer. But I am concerned about the next couple of months. So, let’s chat why.

B117 – the UK variant – is why.

It is in the United States and spreading quickly. A great new analysis by Kristian G. Andersen et al confirms as much. It is a problem.

B117 is much more contagious – so, it can quickly overwhelm a nation. Broader issues are discussed by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times.

If you want to understand what this variant can do to a nation, let’s look at some data.

First, let’s look at the pandemic in two nations: Ireland (in blue) and Germany (in red). Until mid-December, outbreaks had looked similar. Ireland had a spike in October, did a lockdown, and got it under control. Germany was rising in November and December with modest restrictions in place.


In Mid-December, Germany looked worse than Ireland. But B117 was circulating in Ireland and starting to grow. Not so much in Germany.

And what happened next in Ireland was really rough. What you see is a exponential growth.

Key dates, case numbers.

  • December 10: 5.8 new cases / 100,000
  • December 17: 7.9 new cases / 100,000
  • December 24: 16.9 new cases / 100,000
  • December 31: 27.3 new cases / 100,000

In three weeks, the number of new cases went up more than four times!

Ireland went into full lockdown at the end of December. Cases peaked on January 9, at 132 new cases / 100,000.

Covid-19. | NIAID/NIH
A colorized scanning electron micrograph of a cell heavily infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (in green).

The United States have never seen numbers like that. Only the Dakotas had infection rates that high.

In comparison, here is the USA during this time:

In comparison, here is the USA (in green) during this time:


Our holiday “surge” was small in comparison.

One more thing about Germany. The Head of their public health institute announced last Friday that 6% of their infections are from B117. Since Germany is in a pretty tight lockdown, they may see only a modest spike.

But the United States are pretty open. May be 2% of our infections are from B117 at the moment. But we don’t know because we still aren’t doing enough genomic surveillance. So, most public health experts expect a spike from B117.

But we can avoid a horrible spike that flattens our hospitals and kills tens of thousands. How?

We have real tools. Most importantly, we have a federal government that is now actually run by competent people. We need to substantially ramp up genomic surveillance. We need to act very quickly if we see infections starting to inch up.

We also have vaccines. Our vaccines will work against B117. And they will blunt the effects on high risk people. If we can get them into arms fast enough. Kristian G. Andersen’s analysis shows that B117 will become widespread in the United States. But it need not flatten us.

We have the tools to beat it.  

Further Reading:

Dr Ashish K. Jha, Physician, health policy researcher. Dean of the School of Public Health, Professor of Health Services, Policy and Practice, Brown University, Rhode Island.

[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 9 February 2021 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected, and published with the author’s consent. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Pixabay. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)