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Fauci warns COVID-19 mutations could lead to faster virus spread

Dr. Anthony Fauci warned Thursday that the COVID-19 variant first discovered in Britain is twice as transmissible, while a second first found in South Africa could have a deleterious effect on vaccine efficacy. Photo by Al Drago/UPI
Dr. Anthony Fauci warned Thursday that the COVID-19 variant first discovered in Britain is twice as transmissible, while a second first found in South Africa could have a "deleterious" effect on vaccine efficacy. Photo by Al Drago/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 21 (UPI) -- Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on Thursday said that new mutations of COVID-19 are not likely to considerably decrease the effectiveness of vaccines but could lead to a faster spread of the virus.

In his first press briefing as President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser, Fauci said that while new strains of the coronavirus originally discovered in Britain and South Africa do not on a "one-to-one basis" present a greater risk of illness or death, the variant found in Britain is about twice as transmissible as the original strain of the virus.

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The British strain has been reported in 20 states and Fauci said "it does not appear" that the South African strain has yet emerged in the United States but warned the "level of comprehensive sequence surveillance thus far is not at the level that we would have liked."

Fauci warned that the "phenomenon" of a more transmissible virus must be taken seriously as an increase in infections can result in a greater death toll.

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"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," he said.

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Fauci added that the strain discovered in South Africa and another present in Brazil have shown the ability to affect the monoclonal antibodies provided by vaccines to combat the virus.

He said, however, that while these effects may somewhat suppress the vaccine it will likely remain "well above the line of not being effective" and that the United States has alternative plans in the event the vaccine must be modified.

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"We can do that given the platforms we have, but right now given the reports we have literally as of today, it appears that the vaccines will still be effective against them with the caveat in mind that you want to pay close attention to it," he said.

Additionally, Fauci said the presence of these strains provides "all the more reason" for Americans to get vaccinated in order to prevent new strains from emerging.

"Viruses don't mutate unless they replicate and if you can suppress that by a very good vaccine campaign, then you can actually avoid this deleterious effect that you might get from the mutations," he said.

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Biden on Thursday signed a series of executive orders aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.

Thursday's orders will utilize the Defense Production Act to increase supplies necessary for conducting large-scale vaccine distribution and to increase testing, as well as producing more masks and other protective equipment in addition to creating a public dashboard with real-time data about cases, testing, vaccinations and hospital admissions.

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The administration seeks to vaccinate 100 people in the first 100 days of Biden's term.

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