Cases related to the option are increasing by 70 percent a week in Denmark, despite a strict blockade, according to the Danish State Serum Institute, a government agency that monitors diseases and advises health policy.
“We’re losing some of the tools we have to control the epidemic,” said Tyra Grove Krause, the institute’s scientific director, who began the sequence of each positive coronavirus test to check for mutations. In contrast, the United States conducted a sequence of 0.3 percent of cases, ranking them 43rd in the world and leaving it largely blind to the spread of the option.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suggested for the first time that the variant may be more deadly than previous strains of the coronavirus. Because it can spread more easily, it can also quickly overwhelm medical systems, making survivors of dangerous virus attacks if hospitals are full and medical care is limited.
Danish public health officials say that if it had not been for their extensive monitoring, they would have felt a false sense of confidence at the moment. Overall, the new daily confirmed cases of coronavirus in Denmark have been declining for a month.
“Without this option, we would be in really good shape,”
“If you just look at the reproduction number, you just won’t see that it’s growing at all below,” she said.
But the British version is spreading so fast that Danish authorities predict that it will be the dominant strain of the virus in their country as early as mid-February.
This would put Denmark in front of the United States, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned on Friday that the UK option, known as B.1.1.7, could prevail until March.
Danish officials say that as a result, the daily incidence of coronavirus there could quadruple by early April. Diagrams from the Institute of Public Health predict that in the worst case of infection, even with a severe blockade of action, the cases will skyrocket.
“This period will be a bit like a tsunami, the way you stand on the beach and then suddenly you can see all the water receding,” as cases fall, Krause said. “Then you will get the tsunami that will hit you.”
The first warning came in Krause on December 14. The British virus hunters had taken the fingerprints of a new strain that seemed to be wild in the pockets of their populations. When they uploaded the genetic code to a public image database, they saw that Danish researchers had published corresponding mutations in three positive cases, meaning that the more aggressive version of the virus had begun to move outside the UK.
The version had arrived in Denmark on 14 November and was already being distributed within its borders.
When the British version was identified as a new dangerous risk, Denmark already had a rather narrow blockade. But he closed primary schools that had previously been opened. This halved the number of people who can gather in public places to five. He banned non-essential international travel and imposed strict requirements on new arrivals within the test to be negative in less than 24 hours.
Denmark has also launched a well-disciplined vaccination program, one of the fastest growing in Europe, although the UK and US have had an advantage because they approved the first vaccines earlier.
However, the number of cases related to the British version is growing exponentially in Denmark. Recent British studies estimate that the strain is 30 to 50 percent more contagious than its predecessors. Danish officials crushing such data differ slightly, being 36% more contagious in their country, although they say their numbers are still so small that estimates may be inaccurate.
Concerned Danish leaders have tried to explain to their citizens why they should remain locked up when overall performance is good enough to suggest that the country should have started reopening weeks ago.
In a lengthy Facebook post last week, Prime Minister Mete Frederiksen told people to imagine sitting in the top row of Parken Stadium in Copenhagen, a football arena with a capacity of 38,000 people. A dripping tap fills it, one drop the first minute, two drops the second, four drops the third. At that rate, Frederiksen said, the park would be filled in 44 minutes. But it will look almost empty for the first 42 minutes, she said.
“The point is that one finds that the water has risen when it is almost too late,” she wrote.
The Danish authorities say that at this stage they are racing to vaccinate as many people as possible before the British version is approved. They say vaccinations will be the key to stopping the worst effects of its spread. But vaccines may not come fast enough: According to current plans, they only expect to be able to start vaccinations on a large enough scale to tip the transmission curve in April, and a slowdown in production this week by Pfizer could delay those plans even further.
Frederiksen joined several other European Union leaders at a virtual summit on Thursday, calling on the European Medicines Agency, which approves vaccines in the 27-nation bloc, to speed up its processes. The agency is reviewing the AstraZeneca vaccine for possible release in mid-February. The United States is still reviewing it, but Britain issued an emergency permit last month.
Meanwhile, the once bustling cycle paths in Copenhagen have calmed down as people work from home. Minor shops are closed. Preschools are one of the few sectors that remain open – and are a potential target for further tightening.
“It’s a strange silence before the war,” said Michael Dahl, chief medical officer at Odense University Hospital, the largest hospital in southern Denmark.
His hospital is opening new coronavirus wards and is confident that there will be enough beds even for a growing number of patients.
But he fears infections among staff and their families could overwhelm his training efforts.
“If the mutation is significantly more contagious, we will eventually have even bigger problems with the staff challenge,” he said.
Birnbaum reports from Riga, Latvia, and Selsoe Sorensen from Copenhagen.