Variants could wipe out all COVID-19 progress, US warned

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - WASHINGTON — The United States is at risk of losing all its recent gains in the battle against COVID-19 as highly contagious variants take advantage of Americans getting lax with safety measures.

"Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained," said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After weeks of tumbling case numbers, new infections are on the rise again — about 2 percent more this past week compared to the previous week, Walensky said on Monday.

"Similarly, the most recent seven-day average of deaths has also increased more than 2 percent ... to nearly 2,000 deaths per day."

Walensky also called out states that were easing up on COVID-19 safety mandates.

"I am really worried about reports that more states are rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from COVID-19," she said.

"Please stay strong in your conviction. Continue wearing your well-fitting mask and taking the other public health prevention actions that we know work," Walensky added.

"Ultimately, vaccination is what will bring us out of this pandemic. To get there, we need to vaccinate many more people."

The good news this week: Johnson & Johnson's single-dose vaccine will start being administered.

"There's a kind of new urgency to it," said Dr. Eric Rubin, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

"Because there are new viral variants coming out right now, with some chance that some of them could eventually become somewhat resistant to the protection provided by vaccines, it's really important to get it out there fast."

About 3.9 million doses of the J&J vaccine will be distributed to states, tribes, territories, pharmacies, and community health centers, a senior Biden administration official said Sunday night.

"Those J&J doses will be delivered as early as this Tuesday morning."

As a one-dose vaccine, "people do not have to return for a second dose to be protected," Walensky said.

"In addition, this vaccine does not need to be kept in a freezer and can be stored at refrigerated temperatures. So it is easy to transport and store and allows for expanded availability in most community settings and mobile sites as supply scales up."

The other two vaccines being distributed — one from Pfizer-BioNTech and one from Moderna — both have efficacy rates of about 95 percent, with even greater protection against severe forms of the disease.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has shown a 72 percent efficacy rate against mild to severe/critical disease among US trial participants. It's more effective against severe forms of disease, with about 85 percent protection.

Health experts say Americans should not be deterred by J&J's slightly lower numbers. Its vaccine was tested later than the other two vaccines, when infections were already surging and new variant strains were spreading more widely.

The J&J vaccine was also tested in South Africa when the troubling B.1.351 strain was dominant there, but it still gave strong protection against severe illness.

New variants keep spreading

March will be a very important chapter in this pandemic. The CDC has predicted the highly contagious B.1.1.7 variant first detected in the UK will become the dominant strain in the US this month.

More than 2,460 infections involving variant strains have been reported, according the CDC data. The vast majority of those cases — at least 2,400 — are of the highly contagious B.1.1.7 strain.

Those counts are probably much lower than the actual number of people infected by variants. The numbers represent only those variant cases found through genomic sequencing, the CDC has said.

The US has lagged behind dozens of other countries in the proportion of cases tested for variants, but the CDC said it's working to scale up those efforts. — Courtesy CNN

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