Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, sits before a Senate Working and Retirement Committee hearing on Health Education in Washington, DC, USA on Wednesday, September 23, 2020.
Graeme Jennings | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A mutant and more infectious strain of coronavirus, first identified in South Africa, is “disruptive” and could pose a threat to antibody treatments used to prevent people from getting seriously ill with Covid-19, said White House Health Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, on Tuesday.
New strains of coronavirus, first identified in the UK and South Africa, have raised some concerns among scientists that the mutated variants are highly infectious, although they do not appear to be any more deadly compared to previous strains.
So far, health experts have said there is no evidence that mutations change the effectiveness of current vaccines. However, there are concerns that variant 501Y.V2 found in South Africa may be more resistant to monoclonal antibodies, which has helped some people fight the virus when given early in their infection.
Speaking to health experts in South Africa, Fauci said preliminary data showed there was “a greater threat” that the strain was dodging some of the safeguards antibody treatments offer.
“It could have some impact on the protection of the monoclonal antibodies and maybe even the vaccine. We don’t know,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, during a question and answer session at Schmidt Futures. Forum on Readiness.
He added that researchers in laboratories at the National Institutes of Health and across the country are quickly trying to determine the possible effects of the strain found in South Africa.
“People ask me, ‘Are you worried about this?’ These are not the things I worry about, but the things I take very seriously, “said Fauci.
As viruses spread, they are expected to mutate over time as the peaks on their surfaces change, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 501Y.V2 variant takes its name from the N501Y mutation in the spike protein, which the virus uses to enter cells in the body.
This mutation can also be seen in the UK health authorities identified in December known as B.1.1.7. While both variants found in the UK and South Africa shared the N501Y mutation, they are different, according to the World Health Organization.
Fauci previously said that the mutated Covid-19 variations could pose a risk to the coronavirus therapeutics. Unlike vaccines, which trigger an immune response that attacks different parts of the virus, monoclonal antibodies target a very specific component, Fauci told California Governor Gavin Newsom in late December.
Dave Ricks, chairman and CEO of Eli Lilly, told CNBC on Tuesday that he expected the company’s monoclonal antibody treatment to be effective against the UK-found variant, although the one in South Africa could pose further challenges. Eli Lilly’s drug received emergency approval in the US in November, followed by another drug from Regeneron.
“The South African variant … is cause for concern. It has more dramatic mutations to the spike protein that these antibody drugs target,” Ricks told Squawk Box. “In theory, it could evade our drugs.”
The CDC has not yet identified any strains of the 501Y.V2 variant in the US, although the agency has found at least 72 cases with the B.1.1.7 strain found in the UK as of Monday, according to the CDC.
– CNBC’s Holly Ellyatt and Kevin Stankiewicz contributed to this report.