The top doctor working on “Operation Warp Speed” reassured Americans that COVID-19 vaccines will most likely remain effective even against a new, more contagious strain that appears to be spreading in the United Kingdom.
Dr. Moncef Slaoui told CNN host Jake Tapper on Sunday that despite the new variant, which some speculate may already be in the United States, the structure of the virus renders any significant mutation difficult.
Explaining that researchers in both countries are looking “very carefully” into the new strain, Slaoui said, “The key is that the spike protein requires really very, very specific three-dimensional structure that makes it hard for it to mutate too much. So, up to now, I don’t think there has been a single variant that would be resistant to the virus — to the vaccine. We can’t exclude it, but it’s not there now. And this particular variant in the U.K., I think, is very unlikely to have escaped the vaccine immunity.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci echoed Slaoui on Monday, telling “PBS NewsHour” that even though the U.K. strain of COVID-19 was likely already on American shores, he still has faith in the efficacy of the vaccine.
In response to the new strain, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson issued an emergency lockdown on London and southeastern England over the weekend. Ireland, Canada, and several European nations responded by restricting travel to and from the U.K. in response.
TAPPER: Absolutely. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to the efforts of you and the scientists for Operation Warp Speed. I want to ask you. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he’s now imposing stricter guidelines because there’s this new variant of COVID-19 spreading in the U.K. that — quote — “may be up to 70 percent more transmissible than the earlier strain.” Do you think that variant is here in the U.S.? What can you tell us about it?
SLAOUI: So, we don’t know yet. We are, of course, particularly the NIH and the CDC, looking very carefully into this. Many, many strains of the virus are sequenced all the time. This is virus is what is called RNA virus. This is an approach to being a virus that is prone to more mistakes in the way RNA is made than when it’s a DNA virus. And, therefore, there will be variance.
The key is that the spike protein requires really very, very specific three-dimensional structure that makes it hard for it to mutate too much. So, up to now, I don’t think there has been a single variant that would be resistant to the virus — to the vaccine. We can’t exclude it, but it’s not there now. And this particular variant in the U.K., I think, is very unlikely to have escaped the vaccine immunity.
TAPPER: OK, so you are confident that the vaccines we have, Pfizer and Moderna, will also protect against any of these new variants that we’re hearing about, whether in the U.K. or South Africa?
SLAOUI: Well, you can never say never in science, so there could be at some point something that comes up that helps the virus escape. But, because the vaccines are inducing antibodies against many different parts of the spike protein, the chances that all of them change, I think, are low, but they are not inexistent.