According to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency is seeking to ramp up the country’s capacity to conduct genomic sequencing and monitor for mutations of the virus.
Meanwhile, White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci added that the National Institutes of Health will work with the CDC to analyze the vaccines’ effectiveness against the new variants.
“We will be monitoring in real time the effect of antibodies that we induce with current vaccines and future vaccines as to what impact they have on the ability to neutralize these mutants,” Fauci said Wednesday in a press briefing.
He added that if vaccines are eventually deemed ineffective, scientists will be able to pursue other options, such as “making a version of the same vaccine that in fact would be directed specifically against the relevant mutant.”
The three main coronavirus variants that have been identified originated in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil.
Previous reports have contended that the United Kingdom’s mutant virus is between 30 percent and 70 percent more transmissible but does not seem to be more lethal. However, a new report released on Friday stated that there is “a realistic possibility” that the new variant, also known as B.1.1.7, could eventually produce higher death rates than other strains.
“We’ve been informed that in addition to spreading more quickly … there is some evidence that the new variant … may be more associated with a higher degree of mortality,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a recent news conference.
Recent modeling from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has revealed that the mutant virus has the potential to become the predominant variant in the United States by March. Already, more than three hundred cases have been identified in more than twenty-five states.
Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, noted that the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are still considered highly effective against the B.1.1.7 strain but “things get a bit more problematic” with the B.1.351 strain that was first identified in South Africa. He added that vaccine-induced antibodies might be less effective but “it is still is well within the cushion of protection.”
On Monday, Moderna announced that its coronavirus vaccine might be less effective against the South African strain but is working on developing a booster shot just in case.
Earlier this week, the Minnesota Department of Health announced that it confirmed the first known U.S. case of another variant that was originally identified in Brazil.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.