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Fauci warns COVID-19 situation 'potentially could get worse' given new variants

Anthony FauciAnthony FauciThe Hill's Morning Report - ObamaCare here to stay Overnight Health Care: Takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision | COVID-19 cost 5.5 million years of American life | Biden administration investing billions in antiviral pills for COVID-19 Ex-Trump doctor turned GOP lawmaker wants Biden to take cognitive test MORE warned Thursday that the coronavirus situation in the United States “potentially could get worse,” despite recent improvements, citing the threat from new, more contagious variants of the virus. 

“I think it potentially could get worse,” Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” 

He said that while “we certainly are seeing, thankfully, a plateauing in cases,” on the other hand, “the thing that’s troublesome now, that we really need to keep our eye on, are these variants.”

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New cases have been on the decline in the U.S., though they are still at extremely high levels. New cases have fallen to about 150,000 per day, down from a peak of over 200,000. Still, case levels remain much higher than they were in either the spring or summer peaks last year.  

And the number could spike again given the more contagious variants. 

One of those variants, first identified in the United Kingdom, is more contagious, but at least the current vaccines appear to work just as well against it. 

The more concerning variant from the standpoint of vaccines is from South Africa. Moderna, for example, said earlier this week that its studies showed a six-fold drop in neutralizing antibodies from its vaccine against that variant, though antibody levels were still above levels thought to be protective. 

Out of an abundance of caution, the company said it is working on a modified version of the vaccine to be used as a booster shot specifically against that variant. 

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“The [variant] that is of greater concern and that really could be problematic is the mutant that is now dominant in South Africa,” Fauci said. 

“We're already planning and implementing, making a modified version of the vaccine, that would ultimately be able to be directed specifically against the South African isolate, which is the most problematic of them all,” he said. 

More broadly, it is crucial that people get vaccinated as quickly as possible, Fauci said, because more people becoming immune cuts down on the virus’s opportunity to spread and continue to mutate. 

“So on the one hand, things looking a bit better about plateauing, but on the other hand, we could have some difficult times that we have to be prepared for,” Fauci said.