Ex-FDA commissioner says US should assume South African COVID strain is already here

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Ex-FDA commissioner says US should assume South African COVID strain is already here

Former FDA associate commissioner Peter Pitts says Americans should assume a new mutant strain of COVID-19 detected in South Africa is alrea

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Former FDA associate commissioner Peter Pitts says Americans should assume a new mutant strain of COVID-19 detected in South Africa is already in the States

Former FDA associate commissioner Peter Pitts says Americans should assume a new mutant strain of COVID-19 detected in South Africa is already in the States 

A former FDA official has revealed he does not support imposing a ban on South African travelers to the US, despite fears a new, super-infectious COVID-19 variant detected in the country could spread to the states. 

Peter Pitts, the co-founder of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, said Americans should assume the mutant strain already exists in the country. 

‘It’s probably not nascent and it’s probably been around a lot longer than South Africans think,’ Pitts told DailyMail.com on Tuesday.  

Both Britain and South Africa have detected new, more transmissible variants of the COVID-19-causing virus in recent weeks that have driven a surge in cases. 

The US has imposed restrictions on travelers from the UK in an effort to reduce the spread of infection, however, it has failed to take action on South African travelers so far.

But Pitts said that while tightening US border restrictions may help, it won’t necessarily do much to mitigate the inevitable spread of mutant virus strains, which are likely to continue emerging.  

The US has imposed restrictions on travelers from the UK to the US in an effort to reduce the spread of infection, however, it has failed to take action on South African travelers so far

The US has imposed restrictions on travelers from the UK to the US in an effort to reduce the spread of infection, however, it has failed to take action on South African travelers so far

Former FDA Associate Commissioner Peter Pitts said that while a travel ban may help, it won't necessarily mitigate the spread of other mutant variants spreading to the country

Former FDA Associate Commissioner Peter Pitts said that while a travel ban may help, it won’t necessarily mitigate the spread of other mutant variants spreading to the country 

‘I don’t think a travel ban is going to solve the problem because viruses have a way of getting places that humans can’t always control and with the cat out of the bag, you’re heading in the wrong direction,’ he added. 

‘What the US should be doing is requiring people traveling from South Africa be tested before they even get on an airplane to come to the US.’ 

Those travelers should quarantine for three to five days and then get tested again once they arrive in the country, Pitts explained. 

‘It’s more than just putting a band-aid on a bazooka wound. You need to slow down the infection rates.’  

The US is yet to detect any cases of the South African variant, which some UK scientists now fear could be resistant to COVID-19 vaccines, although there is currently little evidence to support those claims.  

This map shows how the coronavirus variants have been tracked as they spread around the world. No cases of the South African variant have been detected in the US, but efforts to sequence the genomes of viral samples to find new mutations has been 'patchwork'

This map shows how the coronavirus variants have been tracked as they spread around the world. No cases of the South African variant have been detected in the US, but efforts to sequence the genomes of viral samples to find new mutations has been ‘patchwork’ 

The super-contagious mutant strain of COVID-19 that has forced the UK into its third lockdown has already been detected in the US. Ten people spread across New York, California, Georgia, Colorado and Florida have been confirmed to have the variant of the virus

The super-contagious mutant strain of COVID-19 that has forced the UK into its third lockdown has already been detected in the US. Ten people spread across New York, California, Georgia, Colorado and Florida have been confirmed to have the variant of the virus

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio called for a tougher restrictions from the federal governnment in a bid to curb the spread, demanding a full travel ban from the UK to the US

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio called for a tougher restrictions from the federal governnment in a bid to curb the spread, demanding a full travel ban from the UK to the US

The strain has become dominant in South Africa and spread to at least four other countries, including the UK, where health authorities are ‘incredibly worried’ by its arrival.   

The US, meanwhile, has been slow to detect new threats. 

Last week, Colorado health officials reported the nation’s first case of the UK variant dubbed ‘super covid’, in a person who had not traveled, meaning they caught it locally. 

Q&A: Everything we know about the South African variant

Has the variant been found in the US? 

Not yet. 

The US has not sequenced nearly as high as share of coronavirus samples as the UK has, but is ramping up its efforts in the hopes of detecting the South African variant and other mutations earlier. 

Where has the variant been found?  

The variant was found in two people, one in London and another in the North West, who came into contact with separate people returning from South Africa.

The fact that they were detected through random routine sampling which picks out only around one in 10 tests carried out in the UK – and that they are thought to have been infected by separate travelers – suggests there are many more cases of the variant already in Britain. 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it was ‘highly concerning’ and the variant was ‘yet more transmissible’ than the original strain the UK has been battling.

Where has the new strain come from?

The new variant emerged after the first wave of coronavirus at Nelson Mandela Bay, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, and rapidly became the dominant strain in the area.

South Africa picked up the strain using genomic sequencing.

It was discovered in mid-December and is believed to have caused infections to soar from under 3,000 per day at the beginning of the month to over 9,000 by the end. 

Where else has the variant been found? 

Confirmed cases have been announced in France, Japan and Britain.

It is likely to be circulating in many more countries but only a select few nations have the genomic sequencing ability to be able to spot it when it’s present in low numbers. 

What has been done to tackle it?

Both of the people in the UK who had the new strain of the virus were quarantined, along with their close contacts.

Public Health England researchers are currently investigating the variant at their research laboratory at Porton Down in Wiltshire.

All flights to and from South Africa have been banned. 

What does it mean for the fight against the virus?

One mutation in the new strain, called N501Y, is thought to help the virus become more infectious – and spread more easily between people.

That means measures such as social distancing, wearing masks and avoiding unnecessary contacts have become more important.

What about the vaccine?

Dr Susan Hopkins, from Public Health England, told the Downing Street press conference there is no evidence the new strain may stop coronavirus vaccines from working.

Scientists will test the blood of those who have been vaccinated against coronavirus, or have recovered from it, to ensure they can fight off the new strain.

But Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, argued the strain was more concerning than the Kent one. He said it has ‘pretty substantial changes in the structure of the protein’, meaning vaccines could fail to work.

The slow response has instilled little confidence that American scientists would know if the South African strain has arrived.

It wasn’t until the virus strain emerged in different states that the federal government took action.  

‘You can always do more, quicker. I think the lesson learned from the UK experience is don’t wait until you have all the information to do anything. That’s not intelligent public health policy,’ Pitts said. 

‘This is a great example of that because just as you begin to put travel and testing protocols in place in the US and UK, it pops up in South Africa – and you also have to assume it’ll pop up in other countries as well.’   

The former FDA associate commissioner noted that while the variant is more infectious, it is not necessarily deadlier. 

Viruses are known to mutate in order to survive thus it is likely the US and other countries will see more mutations as the pandemic goes on, Pitts said.  

As for the South African strain, Pitts believes it has actually been around for much longer but has only just been discovered due to the country’s health care system which is less developed than that of the UK and the US.

‘As to why we didn’t act sooner, the US is kinda in a political vacuum where nobody is willing to step up to the plate and take responsibility for appropriate epidemiological action.

‘Our public health officials on the federal level are stymied. There’s no one really in charge,’ he added. 

The US is yet to make a call on whether to impose restrictions on travelers from South Africa, all of whom can currently still enter the US, and testing is not currently required. 

Earlier on Tuesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo urged the federal government to impose an order requiring all international travelers to provide a COVID negative test before flying into the US.

Cuomo’s calls follow an announcement Monday that the new, super-infectious UK variant of the coronavirus was discovered in upstate New York. 

Overall, the US has reported four cases of the UK variant, known as B.1.1.7,  – in New York, California, Florida and Colorado. 

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio called for a tougher restrictions in a bid to curb the spread, demanding a full travel ban from the UK to the US.  

US-based commercial airlines are not scheduling direct flights to the US from South Africa, and there are no South African Airways flights into the US, nor have there been since April.

But at least 11 flight itineraries are scheduled for to arrive in the US from South Africa – with layovers in between – between now and Friday. 

And if the South African strain is here already, viral genome sequencing may not have caught it. 

Only some 57,000 coronavirus genome sequences have been submitted by the US to GISAID, an international database configured to help scientists around the world track how viruses change.  

The US ranks 43rd out of all countries sequencing viral genomes and submitting them to GISAID, having sequenced just 0.3 percent of all samples among more than 20 million cases since the pandemic began.  

The UK has done much better, submitting about 141,000 sequences, despite seeing about 13 percent of the infections the US has. 

Scientists say the South African variant is different from others circulating in the country because it has multiple mutations in the important ‘spike’ protein that the virus uses to infect human cells. 

It has also been associated with a higher viral load, meaning a higher concentration of virus particles in patients’ bodies, possibly contributing to higher levels of transmission.   

Several countries have already banned travel from South Africa amid fears. 

Vietnam suspended inbound flights from countries with new COVID-19 variants, initially Britain and South Africa.

The UK, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have also banned travelers from South Africa to try and contain the spread of the new strain.

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