With coronavirus variants posing a serious threat to US President Joe Biden’s efforts to contain the pandemic, a Biden official has told CNN that the administration is still simply “not where we want to be” on surveillance of mutations in the US — and simultaneously worried that Americans will grow increasingly complacent about the virus.
“We are not where we want to be in terms of genetic sequencing, although we are ramping up,” the administration official said. “We are starting way behind on genetic sequencing.”
In order to find new strains of the virus, scientists must genetically sequence samples — spelling out the letters in its genetic code and looking for changes. Coronaviruses are known to mutate, generally in ways that are harmless to humans. But every now and then, a mutation pops up that could change how the virus works.
In the US, scientists fear that variants first identified in the UK, South Africa and Brazil may be either more contagious, more likely to cause reinfection, or somewhat resistant to existing Covid-19 vaccines.
The fear is that these variants could erase recent progress in lowering Covid-19 case numbers. They could also raise the bar for how many Americans need to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity.
An additional concern for the administration that goes hand-in-hand with the spread of variants, the administration official said, is coronavirus fatigue — and convincing Americans to continue practicing responsible public health behavior like mask-wearing and social distancing a year into the pandemic.
“It’s not exciting to say: ‘Wear a mask, keep your distance and get your vaccine when it’s your turn.’ But those are actually the concrete steps that people can take to stop this variant. That is the fastest path to stopping this variant,” the official said.
“It’s hard. People are sick of this. I’m sick of this. Everyone is sick of living in their homes and not seeing their families and not seeing their friends.”
In a White House briefing Wednesday, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the variant first spotted in the UK is now responsible for an estimated 1 to 4% of cases in the country.
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