Dr. Anthony Fauci said the new mutation of COVID-19 that has spread across the UK is likely already in the US — and may even have originated here, according to a top virologist — but does not appear to affect the “protective nature” of the vaccines being used.
“When you see something that is pretty prevalent in a place like the UK — there are also mutations that we’re seeing in South Africa — and given the travel throughout the world, I would not be surprised if it is already here,” Fauci told PBS Newshour’s Judy Woodruff.
“When we start to look for it, we’re going to find it,” he said, adding that “you have to make that assumption” the mutated bug is in the US.
“Certainly, it is not yet the prevalent one, the way it seems to have assumed that prevalent nature in the UK,” Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Monday.
This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2Getty Images
“But we’re going to be looking for it right now, and I’m sure, sooner or later, we’re going to run into it and find it,” added the nation’s top infectious diseases expert.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Luban, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, joined a number of other infectious diseases experts who said the variant may not have even originated in the UK in the first place.
“It may very well be here. It may have even started here. The sequencing in the US is so sporadic,” Luban said, according to The Washington Post.
Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security, said: “It makes sense that it was detected first in the UK because they have probably the world’s best surveillance program.
“It would not shock me at all to find out that it also is circulating in the US,” she added, the paper reported.
The experts suggested that the new strain was identified in the UK first because the country has a strong monitoring system that has studied tens of thousands of genomic sequences of viral samples, according to the report.
The US has lagged in sequencing and does not have nearly the same level of virus surveillance, The Washington Post reported.
Fauci said that since the bug that causes COVID-19 is an RNA virus it tends to mutate a lot.
“Most of the mutations have no functional relevance,” he said. “This one has a suggestion that it might allow the virus to spread more readily.
“We’re still seeking out evidence to prove or disapprove that. But let’s make an assumption that it is, in fact, making the virus more transmissible, even though it hasn’t been proven yet,” Fauci continued.
“It doesn’t seem at all to have any impact on the virulence or what we call the deadliness of the virus. It doesn’t make people more sick. And it doesn’t seem to have any impact on the protective nature of the vaccines that we’re currently using,” he said.
“So, it’s something you take seriously, you keep your eye out on it, and you do tests to determine if there is more functional relevance than we seem to believe that there is,” Fauci added.
The top doc also said he thinks a travel ban from the UK “might be premature.”
“I don’t think that that kind of a draconian approach is necessary. I think we should seriously consider the possibility of requiring testing of people before they come from the UK here,” Fauci said.
“But I don’t think that there is enough evidence right now to essentially lock down any travel from the UK, but seriously to consider the possibility that you might want to require people who are coming here to be tested within a period of time, you know, 24, 34, or 76 hours before they get on a plane to come to the United States,” he added.
Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci speaks after US Vice President Mike Pence received the COVID-19 vaccine.AFP via Getty Images
On Tuesday morning, Fauci will receive Moderna’s jab alongside Health Secretary Alex Azar, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, and frontline workers at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
The Food and Drug Administration approved the Moderna vaccine on Friday, making it the second approved inoculation for the global pandemic.
An earlier vaccine by Pfizer-BioNTech was approved by the FDA Dec 11.