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U.K. variant continues to spread around the world as coronavirus pandemic enters 2021

Bradford Christopher administers a coronavirus test at Echo Park Stadium on Dec. 30 in Parker, Colo. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)
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More than 30 countries have reported cases of the highly transmissible “U.K. variant” of the novel coronavirus, raising fears of increased global spread of the virus, even as countries begin to unroll vaccination programs in the new year.

Vietnam on Saturday was the latest nation to report a case, which authorities detected in a woman quarantined after recent travel from Britain. Vietnam has banned nearly all international travel, but it is providing repatriation flights for citizens stranded in Britain.

Turkey reported Friday its first 15 cases of the U.K. variant, found in recent travelers from Britain, leading Turkish authorities to issue a temporary ban on entries from there. Turkey, along with many other countries, suspended flights linked with Britain in late December.

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At least three U.S. states have identified cases of the variant. Public health officials, however, say it is probably already spreading undetected because of limited genetic sequencing of the coronavirus in the United States.

The United States leads the world in coronavirus cases and deaths, though widespread transmission of the fast-spreading form of the virus would probably lead to even larger outbreaks, putting further strain on the country’s already overwhelmed health-care system.

In recent weeks, British authorities have imposed strict lockdowns on millions of people as the variant, first documented in late September, has led to surges in infections. So far, scientists do not think that the fast-spreading form of the virus is more deadly or vaccine resistant.

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As global infections continue to rapidly rise, Ireland has recently gone from having the European Union’s lowest per capita rate of cases to the fastest growing, the Guardian reported.

“The virus is absolutely rampant now in the community,” the chief executive of Ireland’s health services, Paul Reid, said Friday. “Everybody is at extreme risk of contracting the virus.”

But Philip Nolan, the head of Ireland’s covid-19 modeling group, told national news broadcaster RTE on Saturday that the U.K. variant represented between 5 percent and 17 percent of current cases, according to the latest available genetic analysis.

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While Nolan’s predicted new infections would continue to increase as the variant spreads, he attributed the current surge to socializing over the Christmas holiday.

“Right now, we believe the U.K. variant is here at a relatively low level, even with that small sample,” he said. “We saw an even more intense level of socialization and viral transmission over Christmas than we might have expected, and that’s what’s leading us to the really precarious position we’re in now.”

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The bleak return to shutdowns in many communities across the globe comes in sharp contrast to the hopeful rollout of vaccine programs in some countries.

Israel has provided the first of two coronavirus vaccine shots to more than 1 million of its citizens, the highest rate in the world, since beginning its efforts in late December. The United States, in contrast, vaccinated some 2.8 million people by Dec. 30, falling far short of President Trump’s pledge to inoculate 20 million people by year’s end.

Despite widespread expectations that vaccines will turn the tide of the pandemic, it will still take weeks for the initial shots to kick in and months before vaccines will probably become available for a majority of the world’s communities and countries, particularly poorer ones. Adding to concerns, significant percentages of many populations have reported hesitations around injecting the fast-tracked vaccines, while health experts worry about the effect of disinformation campaigns dissuading the public from getting them.

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As Britain tries to contain the variant, health authorities have also deviated some from initial inoculation plans.

On Wednesday, British health officials said they would prioritize giving more people the first shot to ensure wider, partial protection from the virus, and in turn delay providing the second injection, only after which is the vaccine most effective.