US eyeing British Covid-19 variant, but South Africa one of greater concern

People walk past a sign on Jan 22, 2021, in Los Angeles, California. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The United States is closely watching the more infectious variant of Covid-19 after British officials warned that it may also be more deadly, US National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins said on Saturday (Jan 23).

But US health officials are somewhat more worried about a separate variant from South Africa, although that one has not yet been identified among US cases of the novel coronavirus, he told MSNBC in an interview.

Collins noted that Britain's data was preliminary, and said it was unclear why those with the British variant faced a higher risk of death, whether by changes in the virus itself or other external causes such as pressures on the healthcare system.

"Let's take this as something to watch closely," he said.

Collins' comments come as Democratic President Joe Biden takes the reins of the nation's Covid-19 response, seeking to re-energise the fight against the highly infectious disease and urging a war-like stance.

In a flurry of actions since taking office on Wednesday, Biden unveiled a new US strategic plan to curtail the outbreak and signed numerous executive orders to boost vaccines and increase mask use, among other measures.

The United States is the nation hardest-hit by Covid-19, with 24.70 million cases and 413,775 deaths by midnight on Friday.

Over the past week, 3,089 Americans have died of the disease on average, while 20 US states reported record deaths this month.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday warned that the British variant was associated with higher level of mortality but said vaccines still appeared effective against it.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention last week warned the British variant, already circulating in at least 10 US states, could become the dominant variant in the United States by March.

The variant, known as B.1.1.7, is believed to be twice as contagious as the current version circulating across the United States.

Despite a subtle difference in the data, Collins said it showed current vaccines would still be very protective against the British variant, so "at the moment we are not alarmed about that," Collins said.

"We are somewhat more concerned about a South African variant" that appears to be somewhat less protected against by vaccines, he said.

No known cases, however, have been found in the United States yet, he added.

Scientists on Wednesday said the South African variant may reduce the efficacy of current vaccines, which also raises the prospect of re-infection.

Britain has banned travellers from some African countries in an attempt to stop the spread of that strain in the British Isles and is weighing further restrictions.

Biden has moved to impose a mandatory quarantine for air passengers arriving in the United States, although details have not yet been released. He is also requiring US-bound passengers to have a negative Covid-19 test starting on Tuesday.

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