Mutated coronavirus could already be in US, Fauci says

US officials debate whether to implement travel restrictions as researchers warn not to ‘overreact’ 

Alex Woodward
New York
Tuesday 22 December 2020 14:37
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Related video: Cuomo announces UK passengers on British Airway flights must test negative for Covid-19

A recently identified variant of the novel coronavirus tied to outbreaks in England has likely entered the US, according to the nation’s leading infectious disease expert.

Dr Anthony Fauci said “when we start to look for it, we’re going to find it,” he told PBS Newshour on Monday.

 “Certainly, it is not yet the prevalent one, the way it seems to have assumed that prevalent nature in the UK,” the director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told the network. “When you see something that is pretty prevalent in a place like the UK  … and given the travel throughout the world, I would not be surprised if it is already here."

The variant – a common development as the virus replicates through transmission – has attracted international attention and caution as officials warn that the Covid-19-carrying variant is more contagious than other viruses. Scientists have reported that the variant has a transmission rate of 50 to 70 per cent compared with other variants linked to outbreaks in the UK.

There is no evidence that the variant causes a greater risk of severe disease compared to others, and health officials do not believe the new variant will impede vaccination efforts.

Still, US officials have debated whether to limit travel from the UK into the US – New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has urged airlines to make passengers present a negative test result before departure. Effective on 22 December, British Airways passengers from the UK must do so before flying to New York.

Dozens of countries have limited entry to UK passengers or frozen them altogether.

Dr Fauci has warned not to “overreact” to the virus and place bans on travel, as heightened rhetoric among government officials and media have raised concerns over fears of repeating the kind of virus penetration that saw surges of infections in the spring.

The World Health Organisation’s European chief said officials will discuss the UK variant on Tuesday, but Hans Kluge added that bans on travel are “prudent” and keeping open supply chains for essential goods should remain “possible”.

But a group of infectious disease experts believe it’s possible that the variant did not originate in the UK at all.

“It may very well be here. It may have even started here. The sequencing in the US is so sporadic,” University of Massachusetts Medical School virologist Jeremey Luban told The Washington Post.

Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security, told the newspaper that the virus was likely first discovered in the UK through the quality of the UK’s virus surveillance programme.

“It would not shock me at all to find out that it also is circulating in the US,” she told The Post.

She said a ban on travel from the UK would do little to stop the spread of the diseaese.

"We already have out-of-control transmission of all the variants that are circulating in the US here,” she said.

On Monday, Governor Cuomo said the state is coordinating with Delta and Virgin Atlantic airlines to implement similar travel restrictions, as he warned that the US must be proactive to combat community transmission of the coronavirus to prevent a similar outcome from the spring. A European-borne virus circulated in the New York area for weeks before Donald Trump’s administration put European travel restrictions in place.

“I believe intuitively, it is already here, because if it has been flying around the world, it is already here,” the governor said on Monday. “I say that because I’ve lived this. You’ve lived this. This was the spring.”

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