Elizabeth Frantz | Reuters
Reviewing South Africa’s research will help the U.S. better understand whether the novel B.1.1.529 variant can evade the antibody protection against the virus provided by vaccines and previous infection, Fauci said. With countries across Europe and Asia imposing travel restrictions on several nations in southern Africa, Fauci added that analyzing the data could help determine whether similar measures might also be necessary in the U.S.
“This is really something that’s in motion,” Fauci said. “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.”
Fauci emphasized that the U.S. is in “very active communication” with South African scientists, and is working to get the molecular makeup of the variant in order to conduct lab tests.
The new strain has now been detected in a growing number of countries, including Belgium, Botswana and Israel. Fauci said there was “no indication” that B.1.1.529 had reached the U.S. yet.
B.1.1.529 contains even more mutations than the world’s most dominant Covid strain, the highly transmissible delta variant. The variant features roughly 50 mutations, according to data presented by scientist Tulio de Oliveira at a briefing hosted by the South Africa Department of Health on Thursday. That includes more than 30 mutations to the spike protein that allows Covid to enter cells and 10 to the receptor binding domain that first makes contact with cells.
Comparatively, the delta strain has just two mutations to the receptor binding domain.
Some of the mutations found in B.1.1.529 are connected with enhanced antibody resistance and could lower the barrier offered by Covid vaccines, according to de Oliveira’s presentation at the briefing. Certain mutations could lead to greater contagiousness, while others have never been reported until now, he noted.
The WHO’s virus evolution working group will also gather to weigh whether to call the strain a variant of concern, a designation for mutations that are more contagious and more virulent, and that can better dodge vaccines and therapeutics.
Fauci said the U.S. would decide on enacting travel restrictions “as quickly as we possibly can” if health officials believe they’re necessary after reading South Africa’s data. The European Union’s 27 member states jointly agreed on Friday to pause travel from southern Africa, and the U.K. has suspended flights from six countries in the region as well.
In Asia, Singapore has banned flights from southern Africa, while Japan has heightened its border controls for anyone entering from the region.
“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,” Fauci said. “And that’s what we’re doing right now.”
Correction: South Africa’s Department of Health held a briefing on the B.1.1.529 on Thursday. A previous version misstated the date.