Health and Science

As U.S. Covid cases stall, top health officials warn variants could 'hijack' nation's progress

Key Points
  • The U.S. is at a "critical nexus" in its response to the coronavirus pandemic as highly transmissible variants threaten to overturn the nation's progress top health officials said.
  • The highly contagious variant first identified in the U.K, "looms ready to hijack" the nation's success, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said.
  • Walensky warned that Covid fatigue is winning, and fewer people are adhering the recommended public health measures necessary to curb the virus' spread.
People wait in a line stretching around the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on midtown Manhattan's west side, to receive a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine at the site which has been converted into a mass vaccination center in New York, March 2, 2021.
Mike Segar | Reuters

The U.S. is at a "critical nexus" in its response to the coronavirus pandemic as highly transmissible variants threaten to overturn the nation's progress in a matter of weeks, even as more vaccines make their way into the arms of Americans, top health officials warned Wednesday.

The emergence of the new variants has largely coincided with the sharp decline in daily new cases across the U.S. since January, but those figures have since stalled.

The highly contagious variant first identified in the U.K., known as B.1.1.7, "looms ready to hijack" the nation's success, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday.

"So much can turn in the next few weeks," Walensky said at a White House Covid-19 response briefing. "How this plays out is up to us. The next three months are pivotal."

The U.S. is reporting a daily average of roughly 65,422 new cases over the last week, a drop compared with the peak of nearly 250,000 daily cases the U.S. reported in January, according to a CNBC analysis of data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

However, the number of daily new infections is still above the rate the U.S. reported over the summer when the virus swept across America's Sun Belt. Covid-19 cases are now growing by more than 5% in 14 states, up from only two states a week ago.

CDC researchers released a study on Jan. 15 that predicted the B.1.1.7 strain would become the predominant strain in the U.S. by mid-to-late March. Health officials have since warned that the variants could reverse the current downward trajectory in infections in the U.S. and delay the nation's recovery from the pandemic.

"Now more than ever, we must do all we can to stop the spread of the virus," Walensky said.

Other variants loom

The B.1.1.7 variant first found in the U.K. isn't the only strain concerning medical experts.

White House Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci on Wednesday noted the B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa could "moderately to severely" reduce vaccine efficacy, and the P.1 variant found in Brazil may evade antibodies generated by previous infection or vaccination.

There are also new variants that have been discovered in the United States. Preliminary reports show that the B.1.427 variant found in California may be more transmissible than previous strains, Fauci said.

The infectious disease expert said earlier this week that U.S. officials are also taking the B.1.526 variant found in New York "very seriously," raising the possibility that it could evade the protection of antibody treatments and vaccines.

Fauci reiterated that the vaccines should still protect against the disease, and drugmakers are working on booster doses to tackle the arising mutations. Clinical trials for a booster shot from Moderna to target the B.1.351 variant are planned to begin in mid-March, he said.

While the U.S. may see another surge from the B.1.1.7 variant in the future, Dr. Celine Gounder, a former member of President Joe Biden's Covid advisory board, told CNBC she's more concerned about the B.1.351 or P.1 variants mutating further and making the currently deployed vaccines less effective at preventing hospitalizations and deaths.

"If you have the B.1.351 or the P.1 further mutate to where it's no longer covered by the vaccine, and you have a window where we don't yet have the updated vaccine available, we could find ourselves in a difficult spot in the fall," Gounder said in a phone interview.

Covid fatigue sets in

The variants aren't the only problem. Covid fatigue is winning, and fewer people are adhering the recommended public health measures necessary to curb the virus's spread, Walensky said.

Despite recent warnings from the Biden administration, some states have continued to forge ahead with their reopenings as cases dip and more vaccines are administered. Texas and Mississippi announced Tuesday that they would fully reopen their states and nix their mask requirements.

"I would still encourage individuals to wear a mask, to socially distance and do the right thing to protect their own health," Walensky said Wednesday.

In New York, large sports arenas were allowed to return with required testing, and restaurants in New York City have resumed indoor dining with limited capacity.

New York is reporting an average of roughly 7,399 new Covid-19 cases per day, the lowest daily number of cases the state has recorded since early December but hovering at nearly the same level when Gov. Andrew Cuomo closed the city's indoor dining in December.

On Wednesday, Cuomo noted during a news briefing that the state's Covid-19 hospitalizations have now "dropped to a level below where it was before it started to peak" in December amid the holidays.

Gounder, who's a professor of medicine at New York University, said she felt it was "premature" for New York to reopen indoor dining.

"I think it was very unwise to be reopening restaurants, which are basically the highest risk public places at this time," Gounder said.

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