The coronavirus pandemic in the US could drag on for another year due to new mutant strains of the virus that could potentially derail vaccination efforts, health officials say.
Chief Medical Advisor Dr Anthony Fauci on Thursday warned that the health crisis ‘could get worse’ now that multiple cases of COVID-19 variants have been detected in the country.
It comes as recent data had offered a glimmer of hope in the nation’s battle against the virus after it showed infection and hospitalization rates were falling nearly everywhere in US.
There are currently more than 25.7million confirmed cases of coronavirus in the country and 432,603 total deaths.
On Thursday, another 155,333 cases were reported, with 4,011 deaths, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
Hospitalizations, meanwhile, fell by over 3,000 and the number of new infections are continuing to fall across the states.
‘We certainly are seeing, thankfully, a plateauing in cases…That’s the good news,’ Fauci told MSNBC’s Morning Joe.
Anthony Fauci on Thursday warned that the health crisis ‘could get worse’ if new variants of the coronavirus are found to be resistant to vaccines
‘But superimposed upon the good news is the sobering news that we still have a lot of cases. And the thing that’s troublesome now, that we really need to keep our eye on, are these variants.’
Fauci said that he is more concerned about the South African variant than about the UK’s B117 ‘super-covid’ because South African form has mutations that might render vaccines less effective.
Both Moderna and Pfizer said this week that preliminary lab tests suggest their vaccines are ‘protective’ against the variant, but it does diminish the effectiveness of their shots.
‘We’re already planning and implementing, making a modified version of the vaccine, that would ultimately be able to be directed specifically against the South African isolate, which is the most problematic of them all,’ Fauci said.
‘So on the one hand, things looking a bit better about plateauing, but on the other hand, we could have some difficult times that we have to be prepared for,’ he added.
Earlier on Thursday, North Carolina health department officials confirmed they had detected the country’s first cases of the South African ‘super covid’ variant that may make vaccines less effective in two residents.
The South African variant has a mutation in its spike protein (circled in yellow) that makes it more contagious, capable of reinfection and potentially more immune to vaccines. Two people in South Carolina are the first US cases but, because they have not traveled recently and have no evident link, the variant may already be spreading in the US
Neither person has a ‘known’ recent history of travel and they have no evident connection to one another, as far as health officials can tell.
That’s a worrying signal that the 50 percent more infectious variant has already been spreading silently in South Carolina, if not the broader US.
It’s the second new variant reported in the US this week, after Minnesota confirmed the first American case of the P1 variant from Brazil.
Variants from South Africa and Brazil contain similar mutations that may help them escape antibodies from vaccines, but the Brazilian form brings an additional worry.
Moderna and Pfizer has said it is developing booster shots to improve the potency of their vaccines against variants, including South Africa’s.
In the Amazon city of Manaus, people who should have been protected from reinfection are getting second bouts of COVID-19 as the highly infectious variant takes off and overwhelmed hospital there.
‘The arrival of the SARS-CoV-2 variant in our state is an important reminder to all South Carolinians that the fight against this deadly virus is far from over,’ said Dr Brannon Traxler, DHEC Interim Public Health Director.
‘While more COVID-19 vaccines are on the way, supplies are still limited. Every one of us must recommit to the fight by recognizing that we are all on the front lines now. We are all in this together.’
One person lives in the state’s easternmost ‘Pee Dee’ region, while the other is a resident of the ‘Lowcountry’ region to the south.
The two are both adults, but the state health department said that it will not release any further details of their identities to protect their privacy.
Neither person had a history of travel that the South Carolina health department was aware of, raising concerns that there are more cases in the US, and the variant has already been imported and begun spreading.
It comes just a day after White House officials assured Americans that the variant had not been detected in the US.
Pentagon evaluating request for help in administering COVID-19 vaccines
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide help in administering the COVID-19 vaccine, a spokesman said on Thursday.
‘Given the significance of the request, it will be reviewed urgently but carefully to determine what DoD assets can safely be made available to support the effort,’ Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.
While the statement did not provide the number of troops that could be involved, a U.S. official told Reuters that it could number in the thousands.
However, Dr Fauci admitted last week that the US has not been doing enough of the kind of genetic testing that detects new variants of COVID-19.
‘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,’ Dr Fauci said last Thursday from the White House.
Exactly a week later, the variant is here, and although the CDC is ramping up surveillance, it appears its arrival from abroad was missed.
More than 30 countries, including the UK, where there are at least 77 cases – have reported cases of the variant, which emerged in South Africa at the end of 2020.
The South African variant is ‘a little bit more concerning but not something that we don’t think we can handle,’ Dr Fauci said last week.
Like the UK variant that is more than half of states, the South African variant of coronavirus – known by scientists as 501Y – is thought to be more infectious than original coronavirus.
In addition to being about 70 percent more infectious, the UK variant may be 30 to 40 percent deadlier, preliminary data from the UK suggests. A person in New Jersey became the first person in the US to die of that variant, officials there said Thursday.
CDC warned that the UK’s B117 variant could become dominant by March, triggering another surge in infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
But the South African variant 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. The first US case of the Brazilian variant was reported this week as well, in a Minnesotan who had recently traveled there.
That’s because they have mutations that may prevent antibodies that vaccines trigger from latching onto them and preventing them from infecting human cells.
WHAT ARE THE ‘SUPER-COVID’ VARIANTS SPREADING AROUND THE WORLD?
UK’S ‘KENT’ VARIANT – B117
UK health officials announced in December that a ‘variant of concern’ had emerged in Kent.
The variant is known to scientists as B117, a name derived from the location of its most significant mutations.
B117 appears to be more infectious than older ‘wild-type’ coronavirus variants.
Most estimates put it at about 70% more infectious, but some studies suggest it could be twice as infectious, while more moderate projections say its transmissibility is only about 56% higher.
B117 quickly became dominant in the UK, and now accounts for at least 61% of cases there.
It has been detected in 60 countries, including the US, where at least 159 cases in 22 states have been identified.
While its mutations seemed to quite clearly make the variant more infectious, it didn’t seem to change the odds of severe COVID-19 or death.
But UK health officials said Friday it may be 30 to 40% more deadly, based on how many people infected with it die. The mortality rate for people hospitalized with B117 in the UK appears no different from that of older variants.
After reviewing the UK’s data, Dr Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert said it may indeed be deadlier.
However, he and UK officials still say other variants are more concerning because they may make vaccines less effective – which doesn’t seem to be the case with the UK variant.
SOUTH AFRICAN VARIANT – B1351
A new variant was announced in South Africa on December 18.
It shares a mutation with the UK variant – in a location on its genome known as 501Y – but also has several other mutations.
The South African variant is estimated to be about 50 percent more contagious and is already dominant there.
It has spread to at lest 20 countries, including the UK, which has at least 77 countries.
South Africa’s mutated variant has not yet been spotted in the US – but many experts suspect it is already here.
President Joe Biden invoked a travel ban on people coming from South Africa in an effort to stop importation of the new variant.
Dr Fauci says that the South African variant is the most concerning one because it might render vaccines less effective due to mutations that help it ‘hide’ from antibodies developed after vaccination or a previous bout of COVID-19.
BRAZIL’S VARIANT – P1
The variant first caught international attention when four travelers arriving to Tokyo from Manaus, Brazil, tested positive on January 2.
The variant has the same spike protein mutation as the highly transmissible versions found in Kent and South Africa – named N501Y – which makes the spike better able to bind to receptors inside the body.
Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon, has been devastated by COVID-19. Hospitals are running out of oxygen and Brazilian officials have said it is in a state of crisis.
The new variant accounts for nearly half of all cases there and is thought to be more contagious and possibly make vaccines less effective.
The variant has been spotted in Japan, France and Germany. It has not yet been detected in the UK or the US – but former FDA Commissioner Dr Scott Gottlieb said he suspects it has already arrived.