There is "no indication" that a new coronavirus variant that has been discovered in South Africa has surfaced in the United States, but more information is needed about whether the COVID-19 vaccines and tests will work against the variant before a travel ban, similar to ones in the EU, Britain, and India, would be put in place, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Friday.
"[It] has some mutations that are raising some concern, particularly with regard to possibly a transmissibility increase and possible evasion of an immune response," Fauci, the chief medical adviser for the White House and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on CNN's "New Day."
A discussion between scientists from South Africa and the United States has been scheduled for later Friday morning, he added, as "we want to find out, scientist-to-scientist, exactly what is going on."
The variant is "spreading at a reasonably rapid rate" and becoming more widespread in South Africa, and we are learning "in real-time" more about it, Fauci added.
But still, Fauci stressed that "anything is possible" when asked if the strain is in the United States, but there is now no indication that it is.
"It went to Botswana," he said. "People traveled and found out they were infected and had gone to Hong Kong. There's a lot of travel. That's the reason why we are getting together to try to get the precise molecular makeup of it, so you could test for it … we are in very active communication with our South African colleague scientists."
The new variant contains a spike protein that is said to be dramatically different from the one found in the original coronavirus that COVID-19 vaccines are based on. This is raising fears about whether the current vaccines, which are successful against the delta variant, will work against the new variant.
"When you look at a mutation, it can give you a hint or a prediction that it might evade the immune response," said Fauci. "What you need to do is get that particular sequence of the virus, put it in the lab where you can test the antibodies."
As for now, the answer to whether the variant evades the antibodies now available is not known, he continued, "but we're going to find out for sure."
As far as a travel ban, "as soon as we find out more information, we will do it as we can. You don't want to say you are going to do it until you have a scientific reason to do it," Fauci said."
Meanwhile, there is a renewed surge in hospitalizations in some states, such as Michigan, and Fauci said what happens over the next few months depends on whether people get vaccinated.
"I keep saying it over and over, the next couple of months will be up to us," he said. "We have 60 million people, adults, eligible for vaccination not vaccinated. We've got to get them vaccinated. There's no reason whatsoever not to vaccinate them. We want the boosters, and this is really, really clear, the boosters increase the level of protection dramatically, particularly in individuals with waning protection."
Fauci also commented on a recent interview CNN held with Adm. Brett Giroir, the former Health and Human Services assistant secretary who served as the COVID-19 testing czar under then-President Donald Trump, who last week pushed back on reports that senior members of the administration had interfered with public health policy.
Giroir also said that the testing guidelines concerning asymptomatic people had been "highly misinterpreted" by the public and the media. Fauci said Friday that he and Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House COVID-19 task force coordinator under Trump, "always said we want to test people even though they are asymptomatic."
However, the testing at first started on people who only had symptoms, said Fauci.
"If you have more widespread testing, you obviously have more people that you've identified are positive," said Fauci. "If you don't test asymptomatic people, it looks like the level of infection is much lower."
Giroir also said that ultimately Birx and Fauci "signed off" on the initial testing guidance rules, but Fauci said Friday he didn't know what Giroir was talking about.
"I was actually in the hospital when that was signed off on, so I don't know what he's talking about," said Fauci. "I was having my polyp for my vocal chord removed at that time. I wasn't there when they gave the sign-off."
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