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‘Don’t overreact’: Fauci says US should watch new Covid strain carefully but not join UK travel ban

Experts call for calm, as WHO’s European member states meet to discuss variant detected in England

Adam Forrest
Tuesday 22 December 2020 10:33 GMT
Lorries queues as France closes border to UK
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Dr Anthony Fauci has said he did not recommend the US join other countries in banning travel from the UK over the new coronavirus variant detected in southern England.

The top US infectious disease expert said American health officials should “without a doubt keep an eye on it,” but added: “We don’t want to overreact.”

Dr Fauci told CNN he would advise against suspending flights from the UK should the matter come up at the news White House coronavirus task force meeting. "Follow it carefully, but don’t overreact to it,” he said of the new Covid-19 variant.

It comes as experts and officials in Europe urged calm over the new strain – which could be up to 70 per cent more transmissible but is not thought to be more harmful or immune to the vaccine.

Belgian virologist Marc van Ranst said may only a matter of time before the mutation is detected in other European countries, claiming the UK’s scientific expertise in sequencing the virus explains why it identified the new variant first.

“I’m not sure the travel bans to the UK are completely fair,” Prof Van Ranst told Bloomberg. “The UK is one of the countries that sequences a lot of complete genomes so they will pick up these variants much earlier and much higher frequency than other countries. I think this variant has already spread more than we think.”

Yvon Englert, chair of the Belgian vaccination task force, told RTL: “Don’t forget that Boris Johnson does not have the infection under control. It’s easier to say that it’s the mutated virus that explains it, rather than the fact that measures were not strict enough in England for a very long time.”

European diplomats told The Independent that the lack of communication from Mr Johnson’s government to European leaders on the virulence of the new strain contributed to the travel bans imposed on the UK.  

Some officials suggested the rhetoric – UK health secretary Matt Hancock declared the mutant strain was “running out of control” – did not help. “There is certainly a feeling that the UK government presented things for domestic politics without thinking fully of what effect it will have in other countries,” one senior western European diplomat said.  

“But when you talk up high transmission rate and say the disease is out of control, then it is bound worry not only people in the UK but people and governments in other countries as well.”  

It comes as talks between British and French officials continue on Tuesday to re-open trade routes across the English Channel. The French embassy in London also said there could be a “secured reopening” of the border on Wednesday as part of an EU-wide response to the crisis.

The World Health Organisation’s European chief said a meeting has been called of WHO’s European member states on Tuesday to discuss the strain identified in the UK.  

Hans Kluge said travel bans to contain the spread of the mutant virus are “prudent” – but allowing supply chains for essential goods should remain “possible”.

He wrote on Twitter: “Limiting travel to contain spread is prudent until we have better info. Supply chains for essential goods and essential travel should remain possible. Welcome GB action to share data and intensify investigations.”

The chief executive of BioNTech has said the German pharmaceutical company is confident that its coronavirus vaccine works against the variant identified in the UK, but further studies are needed to be completely sure.

Ugur Sahin said on Tuesday that “we don’t know at the moment if our vaccine is also able to provide protection against this new variant,” but because the proteins on the variant are 99 per cent the same as the prevailing strains, BioNTech has “scientific confidence” in the vaccine.

Prof Sahin said BioNTech is currently conducting further studies and hopes to have certainty within the coming weeks. “The likelihood that our vaccine works ... is relatively high,” he said.

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