Anthony Fauci on How U.S. Should Deal With COVID Mutations

Dr. Anthony Fauci has said he "would not be surprised" if a new more contagious strain of COVID has already hit the U.S., and urged the public to ensure they are following existing public health guidance, such as social-distancing and wearing face masks.

Speaking to Newsweek, the country's leading infectious diseases expert said it was vital safety measures which health officials have been "talking about all along" should be followed in order to mitigate any mutation that helps the virus spread more easily.

Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and member of the White House COVID-19 task force, suggested such actions could help buy time and save lives before vaccines are fully rolled out

Asked what mitigating measures Americans could take against a more contagious strain, the immunologist replied: "If it's [the mutation] not interfering with the vaccine, you don't need to do anything about the vaccine.

"But the thing that the Brits say is that it [the mutation] likely increases the transmissibility of the virus. If that's the case, the things we've been talking about all along, we just need to make sure we do it, mainly the implementation of public health measures.

"Wearing masks, keeping distances, avoiding congregate settings, doing things outdoors more than indoors, washing your hands frequently—those are the things that stop any virus, regardless of whether it mutates or not."

One new strain which was first identified in Britain has since been detected in countries, including Denmark, Australia and the United States. Fauci believes that or another variant could already be present in the U.S.

"I would not be surprised [if there is already a COVID-19 mutation in North America], it's already in a number of countries besides the U.K," he said.

"It's obviously not dominant yet, because otherwise we would notice it. But I would not be surprised if it were in the U.S. on a lower level. There's no proof of that but I would not be surprised by that [if it were the case]," Fauci added.

Can we stop mutations from taking place? "The easiest way to stop mutations from happening is to eliminate the replication of the virus. The lower the level of the virus in the community, the lesser the chances of mutating. So the best way to stop mutations is to get everybody vaccinated very quickly and bring the level of infection low," Fauci said.

His remarks come as the World Health Organization warned new variants of COVID-19 are expected to emerge in the year ahead.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news briefing on Monday: "At present, we are working closely with scientists all over the world to better understand any and all changes to the virus and how these changes affect its ability to spread or make people sick, or any potential impact on available tests, treatments and vaccines.

He underscored "the importance of increasing genomic sequencing capacity worldwide," adding that "only if countries are looking and testing effectively will you be able to pick up variants and adjust strategies to cope."

A new strain of COVID-19 was reported to be "out of control" in parts of southern England, U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned earlier this month, adding it has also been found as far away as Australia.

A second mutation, which was detected in the U.K. but originated in South Africa, was noted to be "even more transmissible" than the first, according Hancock.

Supporting the U.S. decision to require negative COVID-19 tests from those entering from the U.K., Fauci noted the new U.K. strain is something "to follow very carefully" and "we're looking at it very intensively now," on CNN's State of the Union o Sunday.

He added: "Does it make someone more ill? Is it more serious virus in the sense of virulence? And the answer is, it doesn't appear to be that way."

Speaking to Newsweek earlier this month, Fauci warned the outbreak may reach its worst level yet next month due to the impact of holiday travels over Thanksgiving and Christmas.

"I think January is going to be terrible because you're going to have the Thanksgiving surge super-imposed upon the Christmas surge. So it's entirely conceivable that January could be the worst," he said at the time.

Anthony Fauci receiving COVID-19 vaccine December 2020
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, pictured on December 22 just before receiving his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the National Institutes of Health. Fauci noted the U.S. should continue to implement all public health safety measures if a new strain of COVID-19 was to be introduced in the country. Patrick Semansky-Pool/Getty Images

The wider picture

The novel coronavirus has infected more than 81.3 million people, including just over 19.3 million in the U.S., since it was first reported in Wuhan, China.

More than 1.7 million people have died worldwide and more than 46 million have recovered as of Tuesday, according to Johns Hopkins University.

The graphic below, provided by Statista, shows the percentage of adults in the U.S. who would get a COVID-19 vaccine.

COVID vaccine hesitancy in U.S.
STATISTA

The graphic below, also produced by Statista, shows the countries with the highest death tolls.

coronavirus death toll us december 13
Statista