‘Omicron’ variant: Fauci says US ‘learning more and more’ about Covid variant as other countries assess travel

Countries around the world are moving to limit travel from areas where fast-spreading new variant has been detected

Andrew Naughtie
Saturday 27 November 2021 00:09
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US still learning about Covid ‘Nu variant’, Fauci says

As the world scrambles to head off the threat of a new Covid-19 variant, White House pandemic adviser Dr Anthony Fauci has said that it is too soon to make conclusive judgments about just how serious the virus is.

Asked on CNN whether there was any sign the variant, which has been named the omicron variant by the World Health Organization, is circulating in the US yet, Dr Fauci was agnostic. “Of course anything is possible, we don’t know that. There is no indication that it is right now.”

As he described it, the American scientific community is “learning more and more” about the mutant virus, which is spreading fast in South Africa. Cases of the new variant have so far been detected in Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel, and Belgium.

The pathogen is hypothesised to have developed in an immunocompromised individual whose immune system was unable to purge itself of the virus, allowing it to mutate time after time before transmission to somebody else.

The resulting variant is a matter of extreme concern, because of the number of mutations that differentiate it from the original strain, particularly on the all-important spike protein that various vaccines are designed to target.

“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 particular 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,” he said.

“Right now we’re getting the material together with our South African colleagues to get a situation where you could actually directly test it. 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 ... the answer is that we don’t know right now, but we’re going to find out for sure.”

While it is expected to take up to eight weeks to develop a full picture of the variant’s implications, events are moving fast. Belgium confirmed Europe’s first case only just after South Africa identified the new variant, and the European Commission has now proposed that all EU member states suspend travel from countries where it has been detected.

For his part, Dr Fauci was open to the idea that restrictions will be needed depending on what is discovered about the variant’s capabilities in the coming weeks.

“Obviously, as soon as we find out more information we’ll make a decision as quickly as we possibly can,” he said. “You always put these things on the table, but you don’t want to say you’re gonna 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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