False Reports of a New ‘U.S. Variant’ Came From White House Task Force


Reports of a highly contagious new coronavirus variant in the United States, published on Friday by multiple news outlets, are based on speculative statements made by Dr. Deborah Birx and are inaccurate, according to several government officials.

The erroneous report originated at a recent meeting where Dr. Birx, a member of the White House coronavirus task force, presented graphs of the escalating cases in the country. She suggested to other members of the task force that a new, more transmissible variant originating in the United States might explain the surge, as another variant did in Britain.

Her hypothesis made it into a weekly report sent to state governors. “This fall/winter surge has been at nearly twice the rate of rise of cases as the spring and summer surges. This acceleration suggests there may be a USA variant that has evolved here, in addition to the UK variant that is already spreading in our communities and may be 50% more transmissible,” the report read. “Aggressive mitigation must be used to match a more aggressive virus.”

Dismayed, officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tried to have the speculative statements removed but were unsuccessful, according to three people familiar with the events.

Another variant circulating at low levels in the United States, known as B 1.346, contains a deletion that is also present in B.1.1.7. “But I have seen nothing on increased transmission,” said Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona who discovered that variant.

That variant has been in the United States for three months and also accounts for fewer than 0.5 percent of cases, so it is unlikely to be more contagious than other variants, according to a C.D.C. scientist who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.

All viruses evolve, and the coronavirus is no different. “Based on scientific understanding of viruses, it is highly likely there are many variants evolving simultaneously across the globe,” Mr. McDonald, of the C.D.C., said. “However, it could take weeks or months to identify if there is a single variant of the virus that causes Covid-19 fueling the surge in the United States similar to the surge in the United Kingdom.”

Carl Zimmer contributed reporting from New Haven, Conn., and Noah Weiland from Washington.



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