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Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), on Wednesday walked through a multiagency attack plan for halting the spread of three COVID-19 variants.
Dr Rochelle Walensky. AP
As part of the Journal of the American Medical Association’s (JAMA’s) Q&A series with JAMA Editor-in-Chief Howard Bauchner, Walensky referenced the blueprint she coathored with Anthony Fauci, MD, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, and Henry T. Walke, MD, MPH, of the CDC, which was published on Wednesday in JAMA Network.
In the viewpoint article, they explain that the Department of Health and Human Services has established the SARS-CoV-2 Interagency Group to improve coordination among the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, the US Department of Agriculture, and the US Department of Defense.
Walensky said the first objective is to reinforce vigilance regarding public health mitigation strategies to decrease the amount of virus that’s circulating.
As part of that strategy, she said, the CDC strongly urges against nonessential travel.
In addition, public health leaders are working on a surveillance system to better understand the SARS-CoV-2 variants. That will take ramping up genome sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and ensuring that sampling is geographically representative.
She said the CDC is partnering with state health labs to obtain about 750 samples every week and is teaming up with commercial labs and academic centers to obtain an interim target of 6000 samples per week.
She acknowledged the United States “is not where we need to be” with sequencing but has come a long way since January. At that time, they were sequencing 250 samples every week; they are currently sequencing thousands each week.
Data analysis is another concern: “We need to be able to understand at the basic science level what the information means,” Walensky said.
Researchers aren’t sure how the variants might affect use of convalescent plasma or monoclonal antibody treatments. It is expected that 5% of persons who are vaccinated against COVID-19 will nevertheless contract the disease. Sequencing will help answer whether such persons who have been vaccinated and who subsequently contract the virus are among those 5% or whether have been infected by a variant that evades the vaccine.
Accelerating vaccine administration globally and in the United States is essential, Walensky said.
As of Wednesday, 56 million doses had been administered in the United States.
Top Three Threats
She updated the numbers on the three biggest variant threats.
Regarding B.1.1.7, which originated in the United Kingdom, she said: “So far, we’ve had over 1200 cases in 41 states.” She noted that that variant is likely to be about 50% more transmissible and 30% to 50% more virulent.
“So far, it looks like that strain doesn’t have any real decrease in susceptibility to our vaccines,” she said.
The strain from South Africa (B.1.351) has been found in 19 cases in the United States.
The P.1. variant, which originated in Brazil, has been identified in two cases in two states.
Outlook for March and April
Bauchner asked Walensky what she envisions for March and April. He noted that public optimism is high in light of the continued reductions in COVID-19 case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths and the fact that warmer weather is coming and that more vaccinations are on the horizon.
“While I really am hopeful for what could happen in March and April,” Walensky said, “I really do know that this could go bad so fast. We saw it in November. We saw it in December.”
CDC models have projected that by March, the more transmissable B.1.1.7 strain is likely to be the dominant strain, she reiterated.
“I worry that it will be spring, and we will all have had enough,” Walensky said. She noted that some states are already relaxing mask mandates.
“Around that time, life will look and feel a little better, and the motivation for those who might be vaccine hesitant may be diminished,” she said.
Bauchner also asked her to weigh in on whether a third vaccine, from Johnson & Johnson (J&J), may soon gain FDA emergency use authorization — and whether its lower expected efficacy rate may result in a tiered system of vaccinations, with higher-risk populations receiving the more efficacious vaccines.
Walensky said more data are needed before that question can be answered.
“It may very well be that the data point us to the best populations in which to use this vaccine,” she said.
In Phase 3 data, the J&J vaccine was shown to be 72% effective in the United States for moderate to severe disease.
Walensky said it’s important to remember that the projected efficacy for that vaccine is higher than that for the flu shot as well as many other vaccines currently in use for other diseases.
She said it also has several advantages.
The vaccine has less-stringent storage requirements, requires just one dose, and protects against hospitalization and death, although it’s less efficacious in protecting against contracting the disease.
“I think many people would opt to get that one if they could get it sooner,” she said.
Marcia Frellick is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has previously written for the Chicago Tribune and Nurse.com and was an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times. Follow her on Twitter at @mfrellick.
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