COVID-19 Researchers Say U.S. Must Stay Prepared for Variants

May 13, 2021 by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON — Infectious disease experts urged Congress Wednesday to move quickly to vaccinate Americans before the COVID-19 virus mutates to become more dangerous.

Without fast action to create herd immunity, emerging virus strains could make current vaccines less effective, experts told the House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee on investigations and oversight.

“We must not lose any of the gains as this virus mutates,” said Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., who chairs the subcommittee.

Despite the fact that about 60% of the U.S. population is vaccinated against COVID-19, an “escape variant” could restart the pandemic from the beginning, he said.

The hearing was a prelude to consideration by Congress of legislative proposals to significantly increase funding for the kinds of scientific research that led to the vaccines.

A leading proposal is the Securing American Leadership in Science and Technology Act, which would double funding for basic research over ten years.

Although biotechnology would benefit, the bill also would fund research and development of clean energy technologies, artificial intelligence, advanced materials and cybersecurity.

Other provisions would promote training for a technologically sophisticated workforce and research facilities.

Its supporters include Jay Obernolte, R-Calif., who said during the House hearing Wednesday that the COVID-19 vaccines are an example of what can be accomplished with advanced scientific capabilities.

He called the vaccines produced by companies such as Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson “one of the greatest scientific achievements of mankind so far.”

Witnesses at the hearing said complacency is a growing danger as the pandemic appears to be subsiding.

Salim Abdool Karim, director of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa, mentioned the example of news reports in India in late 2020 indicating that the COVID-19 pandemic was easing.

“What happened was complacency that set in,” Karim said.

Many Indians let down their guard by failing to wear face masks or to socially distance from other persons.

Now India is suffering the brunt of the pandemic’s second wave. A record 4,205 deaths were reported in India Wednesday with the possibility of uncounted victims that could make the toll much higher.

At least a quarter million Indians are reported dead from the disease, largely because of a variant that emerged in early 2021. The World Health Organization is reporting that the variant has spread to 50 countries.

“No country is safe until every country is safe,” Karim said.

He predicted that Africa, which until now has been spared the worst of the pandemic, could get hit badly by the Indian variant of COVID-19 soon.

Caitlin Rivers, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the U.S. government should more closely monitor disease variants as they enter the United States.

Aggressive surveillance of how the disease spread helped countries like Japan and South Korea avoid catastrophe from COVID-19, she said.

“We did not have that level of genomic surveillance in the United States and that was a gap,” Rivers said. “We must not again be caught unprepared.”

In a move toward herd immunity, the CDC announced Wednesday it is recommending that the Pfizer vaccine be administered to children as young as 12 years old. They will be able to receive the vaccinations at any authorized site, including pharmacies and clinics.

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