BOSTON — Medical experts are worried that a new, highly contagious strain of the coronavirus could lead to another surge of infections and hospitalizations.

State health officials reported at least two cases of the new COVID-19 variant, known as B.1.1.7, in Massachusetts. They include the infection of a Boston woman in her 20s who recently traveled to the United Kingdom, where the variant was first detected.

Research has shown the new COVID-19 variant is more contagious than other strains, medical experts say, and could complicate efforts to prevent spread of the virus as the first vaccines are rolled out.

"It's much more transmissible, easier to spread and harder to control," said Dr. David Hamer, a professor at Boston University's School of Public Health and School of Medicine.

Hamer said COVID-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer and Cambridge-based Moderna have proven effective against the new variant. But he cautioned of a risk that the virus could mutate further, becoming resistant to the vaccines.

"The virus is continually changing," Hamer said. "And if there's a lot of it around, as there is now, that increases the likelihood of mutations."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that, without new precautions, the new COVID-19 variant could become the dominant strain of the coronavirus and lead to another surge in infections and hospitalizations.

The new strain has been detected in at least a dozen states and several countries.

Hamer said Massachusetts and the rest of the country need to begin monitoring and tracking the changing genetic makeup of COVID-19 samples collected from patients.

"The reality is we're not systematically sequencing the virus, so it could be more widespread," he said. "We just don't know."

Like most states, Massachusetts has been hard hit by the coronavirus, with more than 454,000 cases of infection and 13,469 deaths reported as of Wednesday.

Nationally, the virus has infected more than 24 million people and claimed more than 400,000 million lives — a quarter of them in the past month.

Dr. Howard Koh, a professor at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School for Public Health, said the presence of a new, highly contagious strain of the virus reinforces the need to "double down" on health precautions such as wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing and avoiding crowds, until enough of the population is vaccinated.

"We're in the midst of the most ambitious vaccination program in U.S. history, and that needs to accelerate," he said. "The urgency to do so has only increased with this new strain of the virus."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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