Virus Variants Spur Warnings Amid Hopeful Vaccine Data

The Biden administration has increased monitoring for new variants of the coronavirus that spread more easily, including one that could become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March.

The U.S. is asking each state to send at least 750 samples a week to be sequenced to determine what mutations are spreading, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said in a briefing with reporters Friday.

Yet she warned that the existing system to detect different strains is too slow for public health interventions to contain them.

“By the time someone has symptoms, gets a test, has a positive result and we get the sequence, our opportunity for doing real case control and contact tracing is largely gone,” she said. “We should be treating every case as if it’s a variant during this pandemic right now.”

Clinical-trial data have shown variants could diminish the effectiveness of Covid vaccines, underlining the need to vaccinate people more quickly before mutations become widespread. Drugmakers say they are working on booster shots that could enhance the potency of their vaccines against the new mutations.

Viruses mutate naturally as they replicate. The number of new Covid-19 cases recorded daily in the U.S. has declined somewhat in recent weeks but they’re still growing at several times the rate of the previous peak last summer.

New Variants

A variant known as B.1.1.7, spreading widely in the U.K., has been detected in the U.S. in 379 cases in 29 states as of January 27. Another variant identified in Brazil has emerged in Minnesota, and one detected in South Africa has been found in two people in South Carolina, infections that officials don’t believe are linked.

The reported cases are likely just a glimpse of the number of variants spreading because only a small fraction of patient samples get the genetic sequencing needed to identify the virus’s lineage.

Andy Slavitt, a senior adviser to the White House’s Covid-19 effort, said tracking the variants depends in part on Congress passing a new coronavirus aid package.

“We can do that and what we need is the Congress to quickly pass the American Rescue Plan,” he said, referring to Biden’s proposal.

Biden on Friday signaled he backed Democrats pressing ahead without bipartisan support if they had to. “I support passing Covid relief with support from Republicans if we can get it. But the Covid relief has to pass. No ifs, ands or buts,” he said at the White House.

Fauci’s Stance

The emergence of new variants reinforces the need to adhere to public health measures like masking and keeping physical distance, said Anthony Fauci, White House adviser and director of the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases.

“Viruses cannot mutate if they don’t replicate,” Fauci said.

He said the B.1.1.7 strain is projected to become dominant in the U.S. in late March or early April. While vaccines appear to be effective against the new strains, officials said the virus will continue to mutate in ways advantageous to the virus.

The mutations will require vaccine makes to be “more nimble” to make versions of the vaccine tailored to new strains that may emerge, Fauci said.

At a separate event later Friday hosted by the New York Press Club, Fauci said he was most worried about the risk that some future variants might resist vaccines entirely -- a risk that exists as long as the virus is spreading anywhere in the world.

“You need to stay ahead of these mutants and essentially crush this outbreak,” he said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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