Omicron COVID variant a 'red flag', says Anthony Fauci
- The discovery of the variant announced by South Africa's health minister on Thursday
- Scientists from the United States and South Africa are in "very active communication"
- The B.1.1.529 variant has more than 30 mutations in the spike protein
The US is working to learn as much as possible about the newly discovered coronavirus variant B.1.1.529, which was first detected in South Africa.
The discovery of the variant, which appears to be spreading quickly across the country, was announced by South Africa's health minister on Thursday. The variant was then identified as a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization on Friday, and was named 'Omicron'.
According to Dr Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden and director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, "there's no indication" that B.1.1.529 is currently present in the United States, and American scientists are working closely with colleagues in South Africa to learn more about the emerging variant.
The virus seems to be spreading "in a reasonably rapid rate," Fauci told CNN. So far, the variant has been found in South Africa, Botswana, and a traveller from South Africa to Hong Kong — with Belgium becoming the first European country to confirm a case.
Scientists from the United States and South Africa are in "very active communication" to learn more about the variant's molecular makeup so that researchers can test for it in the United States. This type of data can also aid scientists in predicting how effective current coronavirus vaccines will be against the variant.
Scientists are concerned that the variant's large number of mutations will make it more transmissible and resistant to current vaccines.
"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," Fauci said Friday.
"Once you test it, you'll know for sure whether or not it does or does not evade the antibodies that we make -- for example against the virus, through a vaccine," he said. "The answer is we don't know right now, but we're going to find out for sure."
The B.1.1.529 variant has more than 30 mutations in the spike protein, which is a structure used by the coronavirus to enter the cells it attacks.
These mutations "are raising some concern, particularly with regard to possibly transmissibility increase, and possibly evasion of immune response," Fauci said.
Yet "we don't know that for sure right now -- this is really something that's in motion -- 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," he said. "We want to find out scientist-to-scientist exactly what is going on."
Meanwhile, in response to the emergence of the B.1.1.529 variant, several countries, including the United Kingdom, have banned flights from South Africa and surrounding African countries.
Fauci told Keilar on Friday that the United States must learn more about the variant and how well current vaccines work against it before considering a travel ban.
"As soon as we find out more information, we'll make a decision as quickly as we possibly can. You always put these things on the table, but you don't want to say you're going to 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," Fauci said.
"You want to find out if in fact it does evade the vaccines that we're doing," he added. "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."