Coronavirus infections across the country are spiking due to the Delta variant, but an even worse version of the virus could be on the horizon if the US does not get a handle on the pandemic, Dr Anthony Fauci has warned.
The director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease, and Joe Biden's chief medical adviser, warned that more dangerous coronavirus variants could spawn if the US does not greatly increase the number of people who are vaccinated.
“If we don't crush the outbreak to the point of getting the overwhelming proportion of the population vaccinated, then what will happen is the virus will continue to smoulder through the fall into the winter, giving it ample chance to get a variant,” he told McClatchy.
“Quite frankly, we're very lucky that the vaccines that we have now do very well against the variants, particularly against severe illness. We're very fortunate that that's the case. There could be a variant that's lingering out there that can push aside Delta.”
He said that the US would “really be in trouble” if a variant with the same transmissibility as the Delta variant but with more severe symptoms were to emerge.
“People who are not getting vaccinated mistakenly think it's only about them. But it isn't. It's about everybody else, also,” Dr Fauci said.
The doctor said that the latest spike in cases is the result of the Delta variant's high transmissibility and the substantial number of people who still have not taken the vaccine.
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“What we're seeing, because of this increase in transmissibility, and because we have about 93 million people in this country who are eligible to get vaccinated who don't – that you have a significant pool of vulnerable people,’ he said.
Approximately half of all US adults have been fully vaccinated, and 70 per cent have taken at least one shot.
While CDC data suggests that less than one per cent of people who have been vaccinated have experienced breakthrough infections, the agency still updated its guidance to recommend mask usage by fully vaccinated individuals while indoors if they live in regions with high transmission rates.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky noted that the pandemic is primarily among those who have not taken vaccines, and that unvaccinated are the main drivers of transmission to other unvaccinated people.
Because the coronavirus was co-opted in the US's culture wars early on, vaccination rates have largely fallen along political lines. While some Republican havens – like Florida – have generally kept up with the national average for adult vaccinations, other states – Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri and Louisiana, for example – are in some cases 10 per cent or more behind the national average.