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COVID-19 Variants Were a Major Topic at Fauci's First Biden White House Press Briefing

Anthony Fauci at Jan. 21 White House press briefing

Alex Wong / Staff / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Anthony Fauci, MD, addressed the effectiveness of existing COVID-19 vaccines on new coronavirus variants at a White House press briefing this week.
  • U.S. funded vaccines should offer protection against these new variants. In the event that they no longer work against future variants, technology should be available to allow scientists to repurpose these vaccines fairly easily.

Will our current and emerging vaccines still be effective for new variants of the coronavirus? That was a key question for Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to President Biden, during his first press briefing of the Biden Administration on January 21.

“We're paying very, very careful attention to [reports on variants] and we take it very seriously,” Fauci said during the White House press briefing.  

Fauci explained that RNA viruses, such as coronaviruses, mutate all the time. “Most of the mutations don't have any physiological relevance…however, every once in a while, you get mutations, either singly or clustered in combinations, which do have an impact," he said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at least three variants of note are circulating globally:

  • B.1.1.7, which emerged in the U.K, and has been found in several countries, including the U.S.
  • B.1.351, which emerged in South Africa but has so far not been detected in the U.S. 
  • P.1, which emerged in Brazil and has not been detected in the U.S.

“The one that is in the U.K. appears to have a greater degree of transmissibility,” Fauci said. “It doesn't seem to make the virus more virulent or have a greater chance of making you seriously ill or killing you. However, we shouldn't be lulled into complacency about that, because if you have a virus that is more transmissible, you're going to get more cases. When you get more cases, you're going to get more hospitalizations. And when you get more hospitalizations, you're ultimately going to get more deaths."

For now, Fauci said the vaccines authorized and in development for COVID-19 remain effective. He also addressed concerns raised from yet to be peer-reviewed studies that the B.1.351 variant, in particular, contributes to a diminution in the efficacy of vaccine-induced antibodies.

“There's a thing called a 'cushion effect'…that even though it's diminished somewhat, [the vaccine] is still effective," Fauci said. "We're following very carefully the [variant] in South Africa, which is a little bit more concerning, but nonetheless, not something that we don't think that we can handle.” 

If necessary, Fauci says vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna are built on platforms that can be modified fairly easily in the future to target different types of COVID-19.

“But right now, from the reports we have—literally, as of today—it appears that the vaccines will still be effective against them," he said.

How the Government Can Help

The Biden administration addressed variants in a 200-page strategic report on combatting COVID-19 that was released on January 21. “The United States must be able to quickly identify and understand emerging variants," the report says. "To that end, the federal government, through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the FDA, and BARDA will continue to assess the impact of emerging mutated viral strains on vaccine effectiveness, prepare to alter vaccines, if needed, and conduct vaccine research and development toward a universal or broadly acting coronavirus vaccine."

Government funding for laboratory resources will play a big part in how well the U.S. can track and adapt to new variants. While the U.K. has done a great deal of genome sequencing on the SARS-CoV-2 virus in order to detect variants, the U.S. has done very little. But that is changing, according to Kathryn Edwards, MD, scientific director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program, who spoke on Thursday at a reporter’s briefing hosted by the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA). “The CDC is getting the system tooled up to get more isolates sequenced,” she said.

Mirella Salvatore, MD, an assistant professor of medicine and population health sciences at Weill Cornell Medicine, who also spoke at the IDSA briefing, explained that the vaccines can still remain effective because of what they're targeting. Most of the vaccines funded by the federal government target the coronavirus’s spike protein, neutralizing it with antibodies. The vaccines are also designed to target several prongs on the spike protein.

“If there’s a mutation that changes a little bit of the structure of the spike protein, there would be a lot of other functional antibodies that could keep the virus from entering the cell,” Salvatore said. However, both Salvatore and Edwards agreed with Fauci that if necessary, the vaccines could be retooled to account for mutations. 

“I think that a number of us are thinking about how this could all work and we look to influenza,” Edwards said. "Every year, we choose influenza strains to put in the vaccine. The ability to change is something we do every year.” 

What This Means For You

The overwhelming consensus is that our current vaccines should protect against emerging COVID-19 variants. But in the event the virus mutates too much, those vaccines can also be repurposed fairly easily to better target new strains.

  

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 Variants. Updated January 15, 2021.