Dr Anthony Fauci warned that the South African ‘super-covid’ variant is the one he and health experts around the world are most worried about because it might make vaccines less effective.
The South African variant is ‘a little bit more concerning but not something that we don’t think we can handle,’ Dr Fauci said.
He assured Americans that the variant has not yet been spotted in the US, but added: ‘that we know of,’ and took a shot at the patchwork efforts that have been made to find new variants so far.
Like the UK variant that is in at least 20 states, the South African variant of coronavirus – known by scientists as 501Y – is thought to be more infectious than original coronavirus.
But it also has mutations that might make vaccines less effective against it, a dangerous trait not seen in the UK’s B117 variant. The varint that emerged in Brazil has also shown signs of making vaccines less effective.
That’s because they have mutations that may prevent antibodies that vaccines trigger from latching onto them and preventing them from infecting human cells.
‘The South African and Brazilian variants are having this effect on the monoclonal antibodies’ in lab tests, Dr Fauci said during his first White House press briefing with the
‘The real question is what is their impact on the vaccine?’
Dr Fauci warned during his first press briefing as an adviser to the Biden administration that the South African coronavirus variant is ‘a little more concerning’ because vaccines may be less effective against it – but said it hasn’t been found in the US yet
‘This is a new phenomenon we’re seeing in pre-print journals’ – studies that have not been peer reviewed for publication – ‘but we have to pay attention…[because] what they’re likely seeing is a diminution more with the South African variant than the UK variant in what would be the efficacy in the vaccine-induced antibody.’
He added that that doesn’t mean vaccines will be useless, they just might not be as effective as the 94 to 95 percent efficacy that Moderna’s and Pfizer’s vaccines have for the ‘original’ coronavirus strain.
Viruses are constantly evolving and mutating, as Dr Fauci reminded Americans during his first press conference as an adviser to President Biden on Thursday.
Most of these mutations are fairly meaningless, and most of the time even larger changes to the virus’s genes die off and don’t become a ‘variant of concern.’
However, as case numbers have surged around the world, there has been ore variation and opportunity for strains with genetic advantages to take hold.
Last month, several such ‘variants of concern’ started cropping up across the globe.
The UK was among the first to sound the alarm about its B117 variant, which is estimated to be between 70 percent more infectious and twice as infectious as the ‘original’ or wild-types of coronavirus that have been driving the pandemic.
So far, it does not appear to make people any sicker or more likely to die of COVID-19. But, Dr Fauci warned, that doesn’t mean it won’t lead to an increase in deaths.
‘With more transmissibility, you’re going to get more cases, and when you get more cases you get more hospitalizations, and with more hospitalizations you get more deaths,’ he cautioned.
The first case of COVID-19 due to the new variant was likely in a Kent resident mid-September.
Since then, it has spread like wildfire in the UK, becoming dominant. It now accounts for about 61 percent of all cases there.
It didn’t take long for it to arrive in the US in December. It has now been found in at least 20 US states.
Scientists broadly assumed that if it was in the UK, it was likely already in the US before it was ever detected, because the economic ties – and therefore travel – between the US and UK are so tight.
But the US has also lagged in its efforts to do viral genome sequencing – the process that allows scientists to detect mutations and variants.
CDC has said it is now sequencing more than 6,000 samples a week, up from 3,5000 last month.
That still only accounts for about half a percent of all covid-positive samples in the US.
Dr Fauci acknowledged that the low number of samples being sequenced by the US could mean that the South African variant is already here, but not yet detected.
‘Thus far, it does not appear at all that the South African strain is in the US,’ Dr Fauci said.
‘That said, the level of sequence surveillance is not at the level we would like it to be, but given the information we have today, it doesn’t appear that it’s here.’
Q&A: Everything we know about the South African variant
Has the variant been found in the US?
The US has not sequenced nearly as high as share of coronavirus samples as the UK has, but is ramping up its efforts in the hopes of detecting the South African variant and other mutations earlier.
Where has the variant been found?
The variant was found in two people, one in London and another in the North West, who came into contact with separate people returning from South Africa.
The fact that they were detected through random routine sampling which picks out only around one in 10 tests carried out in the UK – and that they are thought to have been infected by separate travelers – suggests there are many more cases of the variant already in Britain.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it was ‘highly concerning’ and the variant was ‘yet more transmissible’ than the original strain the UK has been battling.
Where has the new strain come from?
The new variant emerged after the first wave of coronavirus at Nelson Mandela Bay, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, and rapidly became the dominant strain in the area.
South Africa picked up the strain using genomic sequencing.
It was discovered in mid-December and is believed to have caused infections to soar from under 3,000 per day at the beginning of the month to over 9,000 by the end.
Where else has the variant been found?
Confirmed cases have been announced in France, Japan and Britain.
It is likely to be circulating in many more countries but only a select few nations have the genomic sequencing ability to be able to spot it when it’s present in low numbers.
What has been done to tackle it?
Both of the people in the UK who had the new strain of the virus were quarantined, along with their close contacts.
Public Health England researchers are currently investigating the variant at their research laboratory at Porton Down in Wiltshire.
All flights to and from South Africa have been banned.
What does it mean for the fight against the virus?
One mutation in the new strain, called N501Y, is thought to help the virus become more infectious – and spread more easily between people.
That means measures such as social distancing, wearing masks and avoiding unnecessary contacts have become more important.
What about the vaccine?
Dr Susan Hopkins, from Public Health England, told the Downing Street press conference there is no evidence the new strain may stop coronavirus vaccines from working.
Scientists will test the blood of those who have been vaccinated against coronavirus, or have recovered from it, to ensure they can fight off the new strain.
But Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, argued the strain was more concerning than the Kent one. He said it has ‘pretty substantial changes in the structure of the protein’, meaning vaccines could fail to work.