Two new variants of COVID-19, which were first discovered in the United Kingdom and South Africa, respectively, have started to spread globally. There's been growing concern about how much faster these variants may be spreading the virus and what effect they'll have on our current vaccines. But Anthony Fauci, MD, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), has another worry about the introduction of the South African strain in particular that you may not have considered. According to the nation's leading infectious disease expert, the newest COVID strain may affect our current treatments. Read on to find out why he's worried and for more on his vaccine concerns, check out Dr. Fauci Just Gave This Warning About COVID Vaccine Side Effects.
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Fauci says the South African COVID strain could affect coronavirus treatments.
In a Jan. 7 interview with Axios, Fauci admitted that the new South African variant, referred to as 501.V2, is "a little bit more concerning regarding the possibility of interfering with some of the monoclonal antibodies." Monoclonal antibodies are antibodies made in a laboratory to try to mimic natural antibodies that fight the virus in those infected. They're used in monoclonal antibody treatments, two of which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized for COVID in November.
Monoclonal antibody treatments have been created to target one part of the virus, which is why a mutation could cause serious issues. In an earlier interview with CNBC, Scott Gottlieb, MD, a former FDA commissioner, explained that antibodies bind to a part of the spike protein, called an epitope, which is what the South African variant has mutated. "If the mutation happens to be at that epitope, that could obviate the effect" of the treatment, Fauci said. And for more up-to-date information, sign up for our daily newsletter.
However, it's not likely to affect the vaccine.
Fortunately, vaccines are intended to elicit a "response against multiple different aspects of the spike protein," Fauci said. Therefore the new strain is less likely to completely render the already developed COVID vaccines useless. "For something to really circumvent the efficacy of the vaccine, it's got to have a lot of mutations that are all at the right places," he said.
And even if this strain does affect the vaccine, changes can easily be made to combat this. "If it doesn't impact the vaccine, you're good to go. If it does, you have to make some minor modifications of the vaccine to be able to circumvent the changes that occur in the mutations," Fauci explained. And for more on the vaccine, beware that If You Take These OTC Meds, You Have to Stop Before Getting the Vaccine.
Fauci believes the South African strain is already in the U.S.
The U.K. strain has already been found in several states, but the South African strain has not yet been confirmed here. However, Fauci says it's most likely already in the U.S., too. "I would be surprised if it were not already in the United States, but you never know until you find it, and then prove it's here," he told Newsweek on Jan. 5. So far, the South African strain has been officially identified in multiple countries, like the U.K., Switzerland, Finland, Japan, Australia, Zambia, France, Ireland, and South Korea, among others. And to see how the virus is affecting your neck of the woods, find out just How Bad the COVID Outbreak Is in Your State.
But thankfully, it doesn't appear to create more severe illness.
Virologist Sunday Omilabu, director of the Centre for Human and Zoonotic Virology at the Lagos University College of Medicine and Teaching Hospital, told Al Jazeera that "we have more people coming down with severe signs and symptoms," but that's not what every expert is seeing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that while the South African variant "seems to spread more easily and quickly than other variants… currently, there is no evidence that it causes more severe illness or increased risk of death." And for more on severe COVID, take a look at The One Thing That Could Determine If Your COVID Case Will Be Severe or Mild.