By Susan Cornwell and Steve Gorman
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is stepping up efforts to track coronavirus mutations and keep vaccines and treatments effective against new variants until collective immunity is reached, the agency’s chief said on Sunday.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky spoke about the rapidly evolving virus during a Fox News Sunday interview as the number of Americans known to be infected surpassed 25 million, with more than 417,000 dead, just over a year after the first U.S. case was documented.
Walensky, who took over as CDC director the day President Joe Biden was sworn in, also said the greatest immediate culprit for sluggish vaccine distribution was a supply crunch worsened by inventory confusion inherited from the Trump administration.
“The fact that we don’t know today, five days into this administration, and weeks into planning, how much vaccine we have just gives you a sense of the challenges we’ve been left with,” she told Fox News Sunday.
Biden’s transition team was largely excluded from the vaccine rollout deliberations for weeks after his election, as then President Donald Trump refused to concede defeat and permit access to information his successor needed to prepare to govern.
In a separate interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, said a plan for distributing the vaccine, particularly beyond nursing homes and hospitals, “did not really exist when we came into the White House.”
Walensky said she was confident the government would soon resolve supply questions, and go on to dramatically expand vaccine production and distribution by late March.
Uncertainty over immediate supplies, however, will hinder efforts at the state and local levels to plan ahead for how many vaccination sites, personnel and appointments to set up in the meantime, exacerbating short-term shortages, she added.
RACE AGAINST VARIANTS
Vaccination has become ever more urgent with the recent emergence of several coronavirus variants believed to be more transmissible, and in the case of one strain first detected in Britain, possibly more lethal.
“We are now scaling up both our surveillance of these and our study of these,” Walensky said, adding that the CDC was collaborating with the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and even the Pentagon.
The object, she said, was to monitor “the impact of these variants on vaccines, as well as on our therapeutics,” as the virus continues to mutate while it spreads.
Until vaccines can provide “herd” immunity in the population, mask-wearing and social distancing remain vital to “decrease the amount of virus that is circulating, and therefore, decrease the amount of variants,” Walensky added.
Although British officials on Friday warned that the so-called UK variant of the coronavirus, already detected in at least 20 U.S. states, was associated with a higher level of mortality, scientists have said existing vaccines still appeared to be effective against it.
They worry, however, that a more contagious South African variant may reduce the efficacy of current vaccines and shows resistance to three antibody treatments developed for patients.
Similarities between the South African variant and another identified in Brazil suggest the Brazilian variety may likewise resist antibody treatment.
“We’re in a race against these variants,” said Vivek Murthy, nominated by Biden to become the next U.S. surgeon general, on ABC’s “This Week” program on Sunday.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease specialist, said in late December he was optimistic the United States could achieve enough collective immunity to regain “some semblance of normality” by the fall of 2021.
But Murthy said getting to herd immunity before a new school year begins in September was “an ambitious goal.”
Nevertheless, Murthy suggested the government may exceed Biden’s objective of 100 million vaccinations in the first 100 days of his presidency, telling ABC News, “That’s a floor; it’s not a ceiling.”
Fauci, appearing separately on CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” said the 100-million goal includes those who may have received both injections of the two-dose vaccines and those who only got the first.
About 21.8 million Americans, or about 6.5% of the population, have received at least one dose of vaccine to date, of the 41.4 million doses shipped, CDC data showed on Sunday.
Reporting by Susan Cornwell in Washington and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Sarah Lynch and Doina Chiacu in Washington and Anurag Maan in Bengaluru; Writing by Steve Gorman; editing by Diane Craft