Fauci says U.S. in 'active communication' with South African scientists about Covid variant

White House Chief Medical Adviser Anthony Fauci gives his opening statement before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing on “Next Steps: The Road Ahead for the COVID-19 Response” on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 4, 2021.Elizabeth Frantz | Reuters

The U.S. will speak Friday with scientists in South Africa to “get the facts” on the emerging, heavily mutated omicron Covid-19 variant detected there in a small number of samples, White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN's “New Day” on Friday morning.

Reviewing South Africa's research will help the U.S. better understand whether omicron can evade the antibody protection against the virus provided by vaccines and previous infection, Fauci said.

With countries across Europe and Asia imposing travel restrictions on several nations in southern Africa, Fauci added that analyzing the data could help determine whether similar measures might also be necessary in the U.S. Biden administration officials later confirmed that the U.S. would restrict travel for non-citizens from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

“This is really something that's in motion,” Fauci said. “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, because you're hearing a lot of things back and forth.”

Fauci emphasized that the U.S. is in “very active communication” with South African scientists and is working to get the molecular makeup of the variant in order to conduct lab tests.

The new strain has now been detected in a growing number of countries, including Belgium, Botswana and Israel. Fauci said there was “no indication” that omicron had reached the U.S. yet.

Omicron contains even more mutations than the world's most dominant Covid strain, the highly transmissible delta variant. The new strain features roughly 50 mutations, according to data presented by scientist Tulio de Oliveira at a briefing hosted by the South Africa Department of Health on Thursday. That includes more than 30 mutations to the spike protein that allows Covid to enter cells and 10 to the receptor binding domain that first makes contact with cells.

Comparatively, delta has just two mutations to the receptor binding domain.

Some of the mutations found in omicron are connected with enhanced antibody resistance and could lower the barrier produced by Covid vaccines, according to de Oliveira's presentation at the briefing. Certain mutations could lead to greater contagiousness, while others have never been reported until now, he noted.

Early evidence indicates omicron carries a higher risk of reinfection than other variants of concern, the WHO said in a statement Friday.

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World Health Organization officials said Thursday that omicron contained a large number of mutations but had only been detected in small numbers across South Africa. The organization announced a special meeting for Friday to further discuss the variant's potential implications on Covid vaccines and treatments.

The WHO assigned the Greek letter omicron to the strain on Friday, and its technical advisory group on virus evolution formally classified omicron as a variant of concern, a designation for mutations that are more contagious and more virulent and that can more easily dodge vaccines and therapeutics.

Fauci said the U.S. would decide on enacting travel restrictions “as quickly as we possibly can” if health officials believe they're necessary after reading South Africa's data. The European Union's 27 member states jointly agreed on Friday to pause travel from southern Africa, and the U.K. has suspended flights from six countries in the region as well.

In Asia, Singapore has banned flights from southern Africa, while Japan has heightened its border controls for anyone entering from the region.

“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,” Fauci said. “And that's what we're doing right now.”  

Correction: South Africa's Department of Health held a briefing on the B.1.1.529 Covid variant on Thursday. A previous version of this story misstated the date.

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