UK variant a 'brand new ballgame,' infecting children in US 'very readily,' epidemiologist warns

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A top epidemiologist is warning about the impact of a concerning variant of the coronavirus first identified in the U.K. that appears to infect children more easily than previous strains.

"Please understand, this B.1.1.7 variant is a brand new ballgame," Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said Sunday on "Meet the Press."

"In fact, right here in Minnesota, we're now seeing the other aspect of this B.1.1.7 variant that hasn't been talked much about, and that is the fact that it infects kids very readily," he added.

To date, there have been more than 15,500 total cases of B.1.1.7 reported since it was first detected in the U.S. in December, data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows.

Osterholm said in Minnesota there have been 749 schools with reported cases of the more contagious variant over the last two weeks. Across the U.S., many children have returned to the classroom after spending much of the last year online.

FILE - A worker administers a rapid antigen COVID-19 test to a high school student at the Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus Gymnasium high school on March 16, 2021 in Dresden, Germany. (Photo by Jens Schlueter/Getty Images)

Since the onset of the outbreak, children have developed serious illness or died from COVID-19 at much lower rates than adults. Thousands of kids, however, have been hospitalized with the virus over the course of the pandemic. Some have gotten MIS-C, a rare inflammatory syndrome in children linked to COVID-19.

"Unlike the previous strains of the virus, we didn't see children under eighth grade get infected often, or they were not frequently very ill. They didn't transmit to the rest of the community," Osterholm said. "That's why I was one of those people very strongly supporting reopening in-class learning. B.1.1.7 turns that on its head."

In a separate interview with FOX News, Osterholm echoed his concern about the variant being more virulent among children — noting that kids are "getting infected at the same rate that adults do."

"They're very effective at transmitting the virus," he added.

In Italy, the B.1.1.7 variant is also prevalent among infected schoolchildren and is helping to fuel a "robust" uptick in the curve of COVID-19 contagion in the country, the country’s health minister said last month.

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Osterholm referred to the variant as a "game-changer," noting that current vaccines appear to be effective against it, and insisted that the focus needs to be on getting through the next two to three months. 

Amid an uptick in COVID-19 cases and deaths in the U.S., public health officials have pleaded with Americans to remain vigilant in the race to vaccinate as many people as possible as quickly as possible. This includes wearing a mask, washing hands, keeping a distance from others — and getting a COVID-19 vaccine. 

RELATED: Vaccinating children against COVID-19 will be crucial to ending pandemic, experts say

Meanwhile, both Pfizer and Moderna have completed enrollment for studies of their COVID-19 vaccines in children ages 12 and older and are expected to release data in the months ahead. Both are also now studying their shots in children under 12 — including babies as young as 6 months.

Johnson & Johnson, a third vaccine currently being administered in the U.S., also recently began testing its shot in older children and teenagers.

This story was reported from Cincinnati.