Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who has been selected to serve as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention speaks during an event at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020.

Susan Walsh | AP

The United States needs to rapidly deploy Covid-19 vaccines and ramp up its surveillance before highly contagious variants take hold or the virus mutates again and makes the pandemic even worse, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday.

Three variants first identified in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil have given researchers some concern, according to a research opinion she wrote with White House Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci. A CDC study published in January warned that the variant found in the U.K., known as B.1.1.7, is likely to become the dominant strain circulating in the U.S. by March.

The B.1.1.7 variant has proven to be highly transmissible, and “preliminary data suggest the possibility of increased severity of disease with infection,” Walensky, Fauci and Dr. Henry Walke, the CDC’s Covid incident manager, wrote in the viewpoint published Wednesday in the the Journal of the American Medical Association, or JAMA.

Walensky told JAMA in a separate interview Wednesday that the variant is thought to be about 50% more transmissible than previous strains and early data suggests it could be up to 50% more deadly.

“Modeling data have illustrated how a more contagious variant, such as B.1.1.7, has the potential to exacerbate the trajectory of the US pandemic and to reverse the present downward trend in new infections and further delay control of the pandemic,” Walensky said in the paper.

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