Dr. Anthony Fauci on Monday gave the grim warning that the UK’s new variant of COVID-19 is more deadly than what’s been seen in the past based on preliminary data that hasn’t yet been released – but admitted he is more concerned about the South African variant which he says makes vaccines less effective.
His warning came a week after he went against British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and said the UK variant wasn’t more deadly. Johnson said at a press briefing in London that the new strain was between 30 and 40 percent more deadly, but offered no data to back-up the frightening statistic.
Afterwards, the global science community – including Dr. Fauci – urged caution against what Johnson said and insisted that while the variant was more infectious, it was not necessarily more deadly.
Many have accused politicians of scaremongering and point to the fact that cases and deaths are going down in both the UK and the US.
Fauci’s remarks on Monday are a marked shift away from that.
There are more than 160 known cases of the UK variant in 21 states across the US including 40 in California, 46 in Florida and 16 in the state of New York. The South African variant has not yet been detected in the US, nor has another variant from Brazil.
All three are thought to be more infectious. While the British strain is also feared to be more deadly, the South African and Brazilian strains are feared to make vaccines less effective. The Brazilian strain is also feared to be causing re-infection but that has not yet been proven.
It comes amid an agonizingly slow roll-out of vaccines across the world. The UK and US – which were among the first to approve the vaccines – are behind Israel, the UAE and Bahrain in vaccinating their populations.
President Joe Biden is imposing a travel ban from South Africa to try to stunt the flow of that variant and British officials are considering a 14-day, mandatory hotel quarantine for anyone who enters the country.
Fauci on Monday also said the US might need to ‘upgrade’ its vaccines to work against the South African variant – but then insisted the vaccines are still effective against it and that it only makes them less effective by a ‘very slight’ amount.
Fauci did not reveal what data he had seen that proved the British variant was more deadly, but that he was ‘pretty convinced’ by the numbers.
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There are also more than 160 cases of the UK variant in the US across more than 20 states. Dr. Fauci said on Monday it was causing more serious infection in people – which means it is more deadly – but he did not say how much more deadly
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week said the new variant was between 30 and 40 percent more deadly. Fauci at first urged caution and said there was no proof of that. Now, he says he’s seen the data British scientists have analyzed and that in fact, it is more deadly
‘The data has not come out officially but taking a look at the preliminary data that the UK scientists have analyzed, I’m pretty convinced that there is a degree of increase in seriousness of the actual infection which we really have to keep an eye on,’ he told Today.
However, he said he was more concerned on the South African variant which makes antibodies and vaccines less effective.
Fauci said the vaccines would still work against both strains but that there is ‘a very slight, modest diminution’ in the efficacy of them against the South African strain.
He did not say what that diminution was, but that it was ‘very prudent’ for President Joe Biden to impose a travel ban from South Africa.
‘We are more concerned about the South African strain right now. When you do studies in the test tube, in vitro studies, it shows that the ability of monoclonal antibodies that have been used as therapies, that is really impaired in the presence of these particular variants.
‘They don’t work as well as treatment. There is a very slight , modest diminution in the efficacy of a vaccine against it but there’s enough cushion with the vaccines that we have that we still consider them to be effective against both the UK strain and the South African strain.
This is the only data that has been made public that explains why officials think the new UK strain is more deadly. It was put by SAGE – the British government’s COVID response team – and cites three studies. In the UK, the strain is being referred to as the Kent strain because that is the locality where it was first detected
Cases and deaths in both the US and the UK are finally starting to come down but there are fears over the new strains and frustration over how long it is taking to vaccine people
‘We don’t want to take that lightly because these things continue to evolve. I don’t want people to think at this point that the vaccines are not effective against them – they are.
‘However, we really need to make sure that we begin to prepare, if it’s necessary, to upgrade the vaccines despite the fact the vaccines we have now do work.’
Fauci said that cases and deaths seemed to be plateauing, but that the country cannot become complacent.
There are also at least four additional ‘homegrown’ super variants of the virus across the US and a new variant that has come from Brazil.
The US is woefully slow at vaccinating the population. Across the nation, only around five percent have been vaccinated. It varies more by state because states have been tasked with dishing out their own vaccination programs. Alaska is excelling, whereas California is behind
The US has only vaccinated 5.2% of its population whereas Israel has vaccinated 32% of its population
The Brazilian variant was picked up on in the Amazonian city of Manaus earlier this month after a startling spike in new cases.
Manaus had already suffered a huge COVID disaster, with as much as 76 percent of the population testing positive with the virus last year.
The fact that another spike is happening when so many people there have already been infected raises the concern of reinfection.
On Sunday night, former FDA boss Scott Gottlieb, said he was ‘fairly confident’ the Brazilian variant was already in the US too.
‘I think we have to assume it’s here. And I feel fairly confident that it is here and we’re just not detecting it yet.
‘There might be certain cities where there’s hotspots of this virus, where it might be 5 percent of all infections.
If we’re just sequencing one or two people within each of those cities, it’s unlikely that we’ll pick that up. We need a much broader effort.
‘So I think based on the data we have, we can’t confidently conclude it’s not here.
‘And just given how widespread it is in Brazil right now and how widespread it is in South Africa, and given all the connections we have to those nations, we have to assume it’s in the United States right now,’ he told CBS’ Face the Nation.
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.