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On its face, the curve of COVID-19 infections in Denmark looks reassuring enough. A nationwide lockdown has led numbers to plummet from more than 3000 daily cases in mid-December 2020 to just a few hundred now. But don’t be fooled. “Sure, the numbers look nice,” says Camilla Holten Møller of the Statens Serum Institute, who heads a group of experts modeling the epidemic. “But if we look at our models, this is the calm before the storm.”
That’s because the graph really reflects two epidemics: one, shrinking fast, that’s caused by older variants of SARS-CoV-2, and a smaller, slowly growing outbreak of B.1.1.7, the variant first recognized in England and now driving a big third wave of the pandemic there. If B.1.1.7 keeps spreading at the same pace in Denmark, it will become the dominant variant later this month and cause the overall number of cases to rise again, despite the lockdown, Holten Møller says. “It is a complete game changer.”
The same is likely happening in many countries without being noticed. But a massive virus-sequencing effort has allowed Denmark, a country of 5.8 million, to track the rise of the new COVID-19 variant more closely than any other country. “All eyes are on Denmark right now,” says Kristian Andersen, an infectious diseases researcher at Scripps Research who is advising the Danish government. “When it comes to B.1.1.7, is there a way in which … we can prevent the kind of calamity that we have seen in the U.K. and Ireland, for example?” he asks.