Dr. Fauci Says South Africa COVID Variant Can Re-Infect People Who Have Recovered

Recovering from the original strain of COVID may not protect a person from re-infection by the South African variant, President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci has said.

The first report of a person getting infected by the fast-spreading B.1.351 variant after they had recovered from the original variant emerged in Brazil in early January, and a similar incident was recorded in Israel on Sunday.

The B.1.351 variant was first discovered in South Africa in December where it quickly became the dominant form of the virus in the country.

The U.S.' first two cases of the B.1.351 strain were recorded in South Carolina on January 28.

Dr. Fauci told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Monday night: "It is certainly not the dominant strain [in the U.S.] but if it becomes dominant, the experience of our colleagues in South Africa indicates that even if you've been infected with the original virus, that there is a very high rate of re-infection to the point where previous infection does not seem to protect you against re-infection, at least with the South African variant."

He said: "That's the one that we know the most about when it comes to re-infection."

The B.1.351 variant features multiple mutations in the spike protein that the virus uses to infect human cells. The mutations may prevent some antibodies from binding to the virus.

Preliminary evidence has indicated that the Moderna and Novavax vaccines may be less effective against this variant.

Results of a study submitted on a pre-print server by Moderna on January 25 suggested a sixfold reduction in production of antibodies against the South Africa strain, but the company said its vaccine was still able to offer some protection.

Moderna is developing a booster shot of its vaccine against the South Africa variant. Pfizer has also said it is "laying the groundwork" for a booster shot against B.1.351 if its vaccine proves to be less effective against it.

Novavax has reported that its vaccine proved to be around 60 percent effective in trials in South Africa, which suggests the B.1.351 variant may be more resistant to it.

The companies' findings are preliminary and are undergoing more rigorous scrutiny.

Fauci said that despite the concerns over the South Africa strain's apparent resistance to existing vaccines, it is still "critical" that everyone gets vaccinated.

"Vaccination is very important. We need to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as we possibly can and when vaccine becomes available to individuals, please take the vaccine," he told CNN.

"Even though there is a diminished protection against the variants, there's enough protection to prevent you from getting serious disease, including hospitalization and deaths. So vaccination is critical. When it's available, get vaccinated."

Stephen Hoge, the president of Moderna, recently warned that the virus will continue to mutate as long as it continues to spread from person to person, which would lead to the emergence of more new variants.

Dr Anthony Fauci at the White House
Anthony Fauci is pictured during a daily briefing at the White House in Washington, DC on January 21, 2021. Dr Fauci has warned that people who have recovered from COVID could be re-infected by the variant B.1.351, and urged the public to get vaccinated. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images