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Fauci on new COVID-19 variant: US, South African scientists studying potential to evade vaccine antibodies

U.S. scientists will talk with South African scientists on Friday about the threat of the new B.1.1.529 COVID-19 variant, including whether or not it can evade antibodies.

In an interview on CNN’s “New Day,” National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) Director Dr. Anthony Fauci said that the variant was raising concerns about the possibility of “transmissibility increase” and its ability to evade immune response

“We don’t know that for sure right now,” Fauci said. “This is really something that’s in motion and we just arranged right now a discussion between our scientists and the South African scientists, a little bit later in the morning to really get the facts – because you’re hearing a lot of things back and forth.”

“We want to find out, scientists to scientists, exactly what is going on,” he said. “But it’s something that has emerged in South Africa and seems to be spreading at a reasonably rapid rate, in the sense of when they do test positivity they’re seeing it’s a bit more widespread in South Africa than was originally felt a couple of days ago. So it’s in a fluid motion. We’re finding more about it and, literally, it’s something that – in real time – we’re learning more and more about.”

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Israel said Friday that it had detected the country’s first case of the new variant in a traveler who returned from Malawi and that the traveler and two other suspected cases were placed in isolation. The variant has also reportedly been found in Botswana and Hong Kong in travelers from South Africa.

Several countries – including the U.K., Israel and Italy – have already taken measures in an attempt to ward off the variant, including implementing travel restrictions on several countries in southern Africa. 

“Is it possible it’s already in the U.S.?” asked “New Day” co-host Brianna Keilar.

“Of course. Anything is possible,” Fauci replied. “We don’t know that. There’s no indication that it is right now. It seemed to have been restricted.”

“There were some cases that originated in South Africa and that went to Botswana and people who traveled and found out they were infected and one that had gone, actually, to Hong Kong. So there’s a lot of travel,” he continued. “You never know exactly where, and that’s the reason why we’re getting together [with] them to try and get the precise molecular makeup of it, so you could actually test for it. And that’s something that will take a little bit, to put the appropriate materials together to do that. But we are in very active communication with our South African colleague scientists.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, takes his seat for a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, in Washington.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, takes his seat for a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, in Washington.
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Next, Keilar asked if the spike protein – which is found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19 and plays a critical role in triggering the immune system to produce antibodies – is “still permeable when it comes to the vaccine” with the new variant.

The chief medical adviser on COVID-19 to President Biden said “that’s what [scientists would] be finding out.” 

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“Because, when you look at a mutation, it can give you a hint or a prediction that it might evade the immune response. What you need to do is you need to get that particular sequence of the virus, put it in a form in the lab where you can actually test the different antibodies. So you can have a prediction that it might evade or you can actually prove it. Right now, we’re getting the material together with our South African colleagues to get a situation where you could actually directly test it,” Fauci explained. 

“So right now you’re talking about sort of like a red flag that this might be an issue, but we don’t know. Once you test it, you’ll know for sure whether or not it does or does not evade the antibodies that we make, for example against the virus through a vaccine or following convalescing after you get infected. When you get antibodies, do those antibodies protect you against this new virus?” he asked. “The answer is we don’t know right now, but we’re going to find out for sure.”

As far as steps the U.S. can take to respond to the threat of this variant, including travel restrictions, Fauci asserted that there needed to be a scientific basis to do so. 

The World Health Organization (WHO), in a Friday meeting, had called on nations to make decisions without “knee-jerk responses.”

“We’ve seen in the past, the minute there’s any kind of mention of any kind of variation and everyone is closing borders and restricting travel. It’s really important that we remain open, and stay focused,” Dr. Michael Ryan, the head of emergencies at the WHO, urged.

“Well, I mean, obviously as soon as we find out more information we’ll make a decision as quickly as we possibly can,” Fauci said, following a question about potential travel restrictions by the U.S. “You always put these things on the table, but you don’t want to say you’re going to do it until you have some scientific reason to do it. That’s the reason why we’re rushing now to get that scientific data to try and make an informed decision about something like that.”

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In terms of immediate action, should cases of the heavily mutated variant crop up in the U.S., the health leader told Keilar that the first step is finding out if the variant does evade current vaccines. 

“I mean, there’s always the possibility of doing what the U.K. has done – namely block travel from South Africa and related countries. We don’t know that. That’s certainly something you think about and get prepared to do. You’re prepared to do everything you need to do to protect the American public. But you want to make sure there’s a basis for doing that, and that’s what we’re doing right now,” he concluded.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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