A former FDA chief has said he is “quite concerned” about a new strain of covid already spreading in the US.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb cautioned that the variant known as BA.X, BA.2.86, or Pirola was “highly mutated” and therefore would likely be better at escaping the immune systems of vaccinated or previously infected people.
He acknowledged that there is no evidence that the variant is deadlier than earlier versions of the virus, but covid deaths in the US have already begun to rise, though they remain near record lows.
BA.X comes from an “earlier branch” of the coronavirus, so it differs from the variant that current vaccines target.
The Biden Administration is expected to seize concerns about BA.X and urge all Americans to get the new updated Covid vaccines this fall, but there are concerns about how effective they will be against the new strain.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA commissioner, warned that the new variant was “highly mutated” and could be more transmissible than previous strains. He was speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation this Sunday.
Hospitalizations are rising in the US, having risen about 14 percent in one week to 10,300 admissions every seven days.
The vaccine rollout will continue to be open to healthy children and young adults. despite the doubts about whether they are necessary.
Speaking on CBS’s ‘Face the Nation’ about the BA.X variant this Sunday, Dr Gottlieb, who was FDA commissioner for two years, said: ‘I’ve talked to a number of virologists who are generally pretty serious and they’re pretty worried about this.
“To put this in perspective, this new variant is as genetically different from Omicron as Omicron was from the original strain that emerged in Wuhan, so this is a highly mutated virus.”
He added: ‘Certainly, at this point, it doesn’t appear to be more pathogenic, so it doesn’t appear to be any more dangerous (than other variants).
‘But it may be more transmissible than the strains that are circulating now. And in that case, he could reach them.
It’s too early to tell. The tests are underway. I think we’ll know a lot more in a week or two.
Dr. Gottlieb is now a member of the American Enterprise Institute and serves on a Pfizer advisory board.
BA.X has more than 30 mutations that distinguish it from the currently dominant XBB.1.5 variant.
These mutations have raised alarm among experts, with some warning that the strain is “reminiscent of” the early days of Omicron because it is so different from any other variant currently circulating.
When the first infections were revealed last week in Denmark and Israel, some scientists were so concerned that they even urged people to put on face masks again.
A total of six infections have now been detected in four countries, with the UK and US also reporting one case each, though experts warn the strain is likely to be more widespread, though a lack of testing means many cases have been overlooked.
In the UK, health officials say they have been unable to link his infection to another known case, suggesting the mutant strain is more widespread.
America’s case was detected in Michigan, scientists say, but few other details about the patient have been released.
The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say they are monitoring the strain.
Nearly all Americans already have some level of protection against the virus, either from vaccinations, past infections, or both, giving experts optimism there won’t be another wave of death.
However, hospitalizations and deaths are now rising in the US, although they are up from record lows and still well below this time last year.
In the last available week, there were 10,300 hospitalizations, up 14 percent from the previous week, but just a quarter of the 43,000 reported in the same week last year.
The most recent data also recorded 479 deaths in the last week of July, up eight percent from the previous seven days but, again, well below the 3,200 this time last year.
Deaths rose eight percent to nearly 500 a week, though they still remain well below record levels.
The Covid ‘Eris’ variant, known scientifically as EG.5, is currently dominant in the US behind about one in five cases, although Dr. Gottlieb estimates this could be as many as half.
Concerns have also been raised about this strain, which appears to spread more rapidly than others.
But the scientists say there’s also nothing to suggest it’s more likely to cause serious illness or death than earlier strains.
In preparation to bolster America’s Covid defenses this winter, a White House source said everyone would be offered an upgraded bolster.
These shots are designed to target the XBB variants, which are currently dominant in the US, and Moderna reported last week that their shot also worked against the BA.X sub-variant which is currently dominant in the US.
They will be offered to all age groups, despite controversy over whether children and adults under 65 will need topping up. In the UK, the vaccine is only offered to adults aged 65 and over.