Dr. Anthony Fauci led his first Covid-19 press conference for the Biden administration on Thursday. Asked about newly confirmed President Joe Biden’s directive to “be completely transparent,” Fauci called it “liberating.”
The nation’s foremost infectious diseases expert then went on to confirm that, while the United States may be seeing a “plateauing” of its Covid-19 numbers, new, emerging virus mutations were concerning.
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The much-talked about UK variant — dubbed B.1.1.7 by scientists — prompted a monthlong shutdown in that country and has been in about 20 states. “It is here for sure,” said Fauci.
He confirmed that B.1.1.7 is more transmissible. While it has not been found to be more deadly, said Fauci, when there is more transmission, there are more cases, more hospitalizations and “you’re ultimately going to get more death.”
Another cause for concern is that, with these new variants, “What we likely will be seeing a diminution in the efficacy of the vaccine — more in South Africa than UK,” said the doctor.
The South African mutant — dubbed 501.V2 — is “having an effect on monoclonal antibodies used to treat Covid-19,” he observed. Fauci said that, in the face of 501.V2, “vaccine effectiveness is diminished but still effective.”
Asked whether that means people should not bother to be vaccinated, Fauci insisted that, while less impactful, the vaccine might fall from 95% effective to 80% effective, which still offers much more protection than 0% protection the unvaccinated exhibit.
Even given that, Fauci said one of the most effective defenses against virus mutations is a very good vaccine campaign. “Viruses don’t mutate unless they replicate,” he observed. Vaccination for the most widespread variant cuts down on transmission and so allows less chance for new mutations.
But the administration is prepared in case a vaccine-resistant variant takes hold. “There are alternative plans if we ever have to modify the vaccines,” said Fauci. Biden, according to Fauci, “said he will use every facility, including the Defense Production Act. He will exercise all appropriate authority…to increase supplies” of masks, vaccines and whatever is needed.
Fauci also said the administration also looks to “utilize what we hope will be another player in the field — J&J,” referring the Johnson & Johnson’s more portable vaccine. That company now has sufficient data from its late-stage trials to begin analysis soon, according to Fauci.
One variant not mentioned was CAL.20C, recently identified in California.
Over the weekend, Los Angeles Public Health Department announced that the UK variant had been identified in the region. The number of LA residents infected with the UK variant was thought to be small still.
Then on Monday, the California Department of Public Health revealed that another lesser-known strain had been circulating in the county as well. Dubbed CAL.20C, the variant is thought to have arisen in the state in July, but it only began spreading significantly in November. It carries a mutation known as L452R, which might be less susceptible to the currently approved vaccines.
According to The New York Times, CAL.20C was found in over half the California test samples genomically analyzed in mid-January. The number of those samples analyzed, it should be noted, is vastly smaller than the total number of daily Covid-19 tests in the state.
Eric Vail, the director of molecular pathology at Cedars-Sinai, told the Times that CAL.20C may have played a part in the surge in cases that overwhelmed Southern California’s hospitals earlier this month. “I’m decently confident that this is a more infectious strain of the virus,” said Dr. Vail. Other experts were less sure.
Dr. Charles Chiu, a virologist and professor of laboratory medicine at UCSF who, in concert with state authorities, has been genetically sequencing test samples to identify new variants also said early indications are the L452R might be less susceptible to the currently approved vaccines, but more investigation is needed.