'I couldn't sleep' -data on variants concerns scientists

For months scientists described how the arrival of breakthrough vaccines had sparked hope that the novel coronavirus could be largely contained.

But data in recent weeks on new variants from South Africa and Brazil has undercut that optimism, with many now believing that SARS-CoV-2 will not only remain as an endemic virus, continuing to circulate in communities, but will likely cause a significant burden of illness and death for years to come.

Among those changing their assumptions is Professor Chris Murray, a University of Washington disease expert whose projections on COVID-19 infections and deaths are closely followed worldwide.

Murray told Reuters he (quote) “couldn’t sleep” after seeing data from a recent vaccine trial in South Africa that not only showed that a rapidly-spreading coronavirus variant could dampen the effect of a vaccine, but that it could also evade natural immunity in people who had been previously infected.

[DR. ANTHONY FAUCI:] “More problematic is the South African 3.5.1., which has moderately to severely reduced vaccine efficacy about 5-fold or so…”

The presence of variants has also prompted top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci to urge the public to keep wearing masks, even after being vaccinated.

On Wednesday he discussed various approaches to variants, including Moderna’s clinical trial of a third booster shot – but indicated that the Holy Grail might still be some time away.

“And finally, the last is one that we look to the future – namely, a universal coronavirus vaccine. One that would handle variants of SARS-CoV-2 and that would hopefully be able to address other pandemic coronaviruses.”

Murray said if the South African variant, or similar mutants, continue to spread rapidly, even with vaccines the number of COVID-19 cases resulting in hospitalization or death next winter could be four times higher than the flu.

Video Transcript

- For months, scientists described how the arrival of breakthrough vaccines had sparked hope that the novel coronavirus could be largely contained. But data in recent weeks on new variants from South Africa and Brazil has undercut that optimism, with many now believing that SARS-CoV-2 will not only remain as an endemic virus, continuing to circulate in communities, but will likely cause a significant burden of illness and death for years to come.

Among those changing their assumptions is Professor Chris Murray, a University of Washington disease expert, whose projections on COVID-19 infections and deaths are closely followed worldwide. Murray told Reuters he, quote, couldn't sleep after seeing data from a recent vaccine trial in South Africa that not only showed that a rapidly spreading coronavirus variant could dampen the effect of a vaccine, but that it could also evade natural immunity in people who had been previously infected.

ANTHONY FAUCI: More problematic is the South African 351, which has moderately to severely reduced vaccine efficacy about five-fold or so.

- The presence of variants has also prompted top US infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci to urge the public to keep wearing masks even after being vaccinated. On Wednesday, he discussed various approaches to variants, including Moderna's clinical trial of a third booster shot, but indicated that the Holy Grail might still be some time away.

ANTHONY FAUCI: And finally, the last is one that we look to the future. Namely, a universal coronavirus vaccine, one that would handle variants of SARS-CoV-2, and that would hopefully be able to address other pandemic coronaviruses in the future.

- Murray said if the South African variant or similar mutants continue to spread rapidly, even with vaccines, the number of COVID-19 cases resulting in hospitalization or death next winter could be four times higher than the flu.