Variants Threaten U.S. Progress Against Pandemic, Fauci Says
(Bloomberg) -- Dangerous coronavirus variants continue to threaten progress the U.S. has made in reducing Covid-19 cases and immunizing the population, according to the nation’s top infectious disease doctor.
“While we are cautiously optimistic about the future, we know that many challenges remain,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in prepared remarks ahead of a congressional hearing on Wednesday.
Fauci’s agency is racing to understand how emerging mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus interact with vaccines and therapies. It’s also working with manufacturers to test existing vaccines, as well as new, tailored formulations, against the mutated versions.
Fauci is among officials scheduled to testify Wednesday at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. The hearing comes as vaccines become more widely available and new cases decline steeply since their January peak, although they remain higher than levels seen late last summer.
Also appearing are Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky and Peter Marks, director of the Food and Drug Administration division that evaluates vaccines.
The FDA will use “every tool in our medical toolbox to fight this pandemic, including pivoting as the virus adapts,” Marks said in prepared testimony. The agency has issued guidance to help manufacturers develop vaccines and other products, even as variants emerge.
Headway in reducing cases is fragile in the face of variants that seem to spread more easily, Walensky said. “An increase in viral transmission could reverse the progress we’ve made,” according to her prepared remarks.
‘Fear and Politics’
The B.1.1.7 variant that first emerged in the U.K. may now account for as much as 30% of U.S. cases, and the proportion is expected to rise, she said. The South Africa variant has been detected in 81 U.S. cases, and another version called P.1 that surfaced in Brazil has appeared in 15 U.S. cases, according to her testimony.
Data from the CDC and Emory University show antibodies induced from previous infection or vaccination work against the U.K. variant but are less effective at neutralizing the one from South Africa, Walensky said.
“It is unclear what impact this will have on the real-world effectiveness of current vaccines,” she said in the remarks.
The CDC has boosted surveillance of coronavirus genomes to detect emerging strains. The U.S. is sequencing about 4% of the 400,000 weekly new cases, she said, through a combination of commercial, government and academic labs.
Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, the House committee’s ranking Republican member, said the nation has been too slow to re-open schools.
“Schools remain closed because of fear and politics, not science,” she said. McMorris Rodgers blamed President Joe Biden, state leaders, and teachers’ unions for the delay. Biden has said states should prioritize educators for vaccines, but that schools with safety measures in place don’t need to wait for teachers to be inoculated.
The administration said Wednesday that it send more than $12 billion to states to increase Covid-19 testing across the country and help schools reopen safely. States will receive $10 billion to support screening for teachers, staff, and students, according to a statement. Another $2.25 billion will fund testing in underserved populations and development of new guidance on screening in schools, workplaces, and congregate settings.
Walensky said the CDC is also looking to update guidance for schools to permit students to be spaced less than 6 feet apart as long as they are wearing masks.
“As soon as our guidance came out it became very clear that six feet was among the things that was keeping schools closed,” Walensky said. A study last week from Massachusetts found 3 feet was an adequate distance in schools when masks were worn, she said, and other evidence is emerging, she said.
McMorris Rodgers called that “good news” and called the need for six feet of separation in classrooms a “significant obstacle” to reopening.
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