UK's Covid-19 strain has probably reached US, says Anthony Fauci but advises against travel ban for now
The likelihood of testing individuals before they board a plane to the US is under active consideration
The UK variant of the coronavirus may already be in the US, according to the nation’s top infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci. He has, however, cautioned against overreacting to the new strain and against a temporary travel ban in response.
"When you have this amount of spread within a place like the UK, you really need to assume that it’s here already. It may not, and certainly it’s not the dominant strain, but I would not be surprised at all if it was already here," Dr Fauci, director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) told ABC’s 'Good Morning America'.
Other scientists agree. "If I had to guess, I would say it’s probably in hundreds of people by now. It’s very possible it’s arrived multiple times in multiple places," Michael Worobey, head of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, told CNN. Worobey as well as Trevor Bedford, associate professor in the vaccine and infectious disease division of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, estimate that the UK variant may have arrived in the US in mid-November.
Dr Scott Gottlieb, former head of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), also believes that the UK strain is already in the US. He does not think that a travel ban, at this point, will prevent "this mutated strain from coming into the US". "As the virus continues to spread around the world, we’re going to start to see more of these variants, and that’s why it’s important to get the population vaccinated and snuff out these infections. The more infections you have, the more chances that these variants start to propagate," Gottlieb told CNBC.
Some countries have announced travel bans to and from the UK while scientists work to better understand the new variant. According to Dr Fauci, a travel ban may be ‘premature’ in light of coronavirus mutation. "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 US,” he said during 'PBS Newshour'.
Dr Fauci reiterated his position at the ABC program. "Travel bans are really draconian things to do. There is certain consideration throughout about the possibility, and maybe the likelihood, of requiring the testing of individuals before they board a plane to the US. That is under active discussion. That’s a big difference than just completely shutting off and banning travel completely, which are really rather dramatic steps. That’s not really in the cards right now,” he added.
Dr Fauci emphasized that it is important to conduct surveillance in the US and find out if it is already here or not. "It is something you want to keep an eye out on. You don’t want to just blow it off, certainly not... When we start to look for it, we’re going to find it," he said during PBS Newshour.
New York Governor Andrew M Cuomo had earlier suggested that the federal government should consider restrictions in the wake of the new coronavirus variant, including imposing mandatory testing of individuals traveling from the UK on flights to the US, as well as a new travel ban from Europe.
Three airlines that are flying into New York from the UK have agreed that they will test people before they get on the flight in the UK. "We have an agreement now with the 3 airlines that fly from the UK to the New York airports. Virgin, Delta, and British Airways airlines have all agreed that they will test people before they get on the flight in the UK en route to New York,” informed Cuomo. He cautioned, “The people who now fly into New York will be negative, but we’ll have flights into Chicago, we’ll have flights into other parts of the country and then those people can get on flights and come back to New York or infect other states. This whole notion that any one state can protect itself was foolish from the beginning. New York has one of the lowest infection rates in the US, but that doesn’t stop the virus from coming in from other states.”
What do we know so far?
Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time. Sometimes new variants emerge and disappear. Other times, new variants emerge and start infecting people. Multiple variants of the virus that causes Covid-19 have been documented in the US and globally during this pandemic. Of the approximately 275,000 full-genome sequences currently in public databases, 51,000 are from the US.
Since November 2020, the UK has reported a rapid increase in Covid-19 cases in London and southeast England. This rapid increase in cases has been linked to a different version or variant of the virus that causes Covid-19.
Scientists are working to learn more about this variant to better understand how easily it might be transmitted and whether currently authorized vaccines will protect people against it. At this time, there is no evidence that this variant causes more severe illness or increased risk of death.
Pfizer said it is generating data on how well blood samples from immunized people can neutralize the new strain, according to a CNN report. “We expect that the Moderna vaccine-induced immunity would be protective against the variants recently described in the UK; we will be performing additional tests in the coming weeks,” informed Moderna.
BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin also said that his company could produce a new vaccine to combat mutations of Covid-19 within six weeks using the technology from its current vaccine, which was developed with Pfizer. He explained that it would take two weeks to definitively prove in the laboratory whether the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine would still work as effectively on the new strain, or if it needs adaptation. “We don’t know at the moment if our vaccine is also able to provide protection against this new variant. But scientifically, it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine also can deal with the new virus variants. In principle, the beauty of the messenger technology is that we can directly start to engineer a vaccine which completely mimics this new mutation – we could be able to provide a new vaccine technically within six weeks,” he said, reports The Guardian.
The US Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) and state and local health departments are currently monitoring and studying the virus spreading in the US to quickly detect any changes.
“The variant has not been identified through sequencing efforts in the US, although viruses have only been sequenced from about 51,000 of the 17 million US cases. Ongoing travel between the UK and the US, as well as the high prevalence of this variant among current UK infections, increase the likelihood of importation. Given the small fraction of US infections that have been sequenced, the variant could already be in the US without having been detected,” stated the agency.
Meanwhile, Cuomo announced on December 22 that Wadsworth Laboratory has begun “aggressive research” of the new strain. So far, Wadsworth has looked at more than 3,700 virus sequences identified in New York but has yet to find the UK variant present in any of the samples. Additionally, Wadsworth and the New York Department of Health have forged agreements with six hospitals from across the state to obtain additional samples and are continuing to make arrangements with other hospitals to do the same. Those hospitals with agreements already in place include Montefiore, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Northwell Long Island, University of Rochester Albany Medical Center, and Saratoga Hospital.
“Dr Fauci said he doesn’t think a ban is necessary. He does think that testing would be appropriate. Dr Fauci also said something that is frightening. He said he thinks the variant is already here. Not that he has evidence of that, but I assume he’s referring to the phenomenon of global spread and how quickly it spreads. If the variant is here, I want to know, because that would be problematic. We have the state now contacting hospitals all across our state to test for the variant specifically. And there are tests that can test for the variant,” Cuomo noted.