A former FDA boss has said he is ‘pretty concerned’ about a new Covid strain already spreading in the US. Dr Scott Gottlieb warned that the variant known as BA.X, BA.2.86 or Pirola was ‘highly mutated’ and therefore likely to be better at escaping the immune systems of vaccinated or previously infected people.
He acknowledged there is no evidence the variant is deadlier than older versions of the virus, but Covid fatalities in the US have already started to creep up, though they remain at near historic lows.
BA.X stems from an ‘earlier branch’ of the coronavirus, so it differs from the variant targeted by current vaccines.
The Biden Administration is expected to seize on concerns about BA.X and urge every American to get the new updated Covid vaccines this fall — but there are concerns about how effective they’ll be against the new strain.
Dr Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA commissioner, warned the fresh variant was ‘highly mutated’ and may be more transmissible than previous strains. He was speaking on CBS’ Face the Nation this Sunday
Hospitalizations are tracking upwards in the US, having risen by about 14 percent in a week to 10,300 admissions every seven days
The vaccine rollout will still be open to healthy children and young adults despite doubts about whether they are necessary.
Speaking on CBS’ ‘Face the Nation’ about the BA.X variant this Sunday, Dr Gottlieb — who was an FDA commissioner for two years — said: ‘I’ve talked to a number of virologists who are usually pretty staid and they’re pretty concerned about this.
‘To put this in perspective, this new variant is as genetically different from Omicron as Omicron was from the original strain that emerged in Wuhan — so this is a highly-mutated virus.’
He added: ‘Certainly, at this point, it doesn’t appear to be more pathogenic, so it doesn’t appear to be more dangerous [than other variants].
‘But it may be more transmissible than the strains that are circulating now. And in that case, it could overtake them.
‘It’s too early to know. The testing’s underway. I think we’re going to know a lot more in a week or two.’
Dr Gottlieb is now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and sits on a Pfizer advisory board.
BA.X has more than 30 mutations that distinguish it from the currently-dominant XBB.1.5 variant.
These mutations have sparked alarm among experts, with some warning the strain is ‘reminiscent’ of the early days of Omicron because it is so different from any other variant currently circulating.
When the first infections were revealed last week in Denmark and Israel, some scientists were so concerned that they even urged people to put on face masks again.
A total of six infections have now been detected in four countries — with the UK and US also reporting one case each — although experts warn the strain is likely more widespread, although a lack of testing means many cases have been missed.
In the UK, health officials say they have not been able to link their infection to another known case — suggesting the mutant strain is more widespread.
America’s case was detected in Michigan, scientists say, but few other details have been revealed about the patient.
The World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say they are monitoring the strain.
Almost all Americans already have a level of protection against the virus, either from vaccinations, past infections or both, which gives experts optimism that there will not be another deadly wave.
Hospitalizations and fatalities are now rising in the US, however, although these are coming up from historic lows and still well below this time last year.
In the latest week data was available there were 10,300 hospitalizations, up 14 percent from the week before but barely a quarter of the 43,000 reported in the same week last year.
Latest data also recorded 479 deaths in the last week of July, up eight percent on the previous seven days but, again, well below the 3,200 from this time last year.
Deaths are up by eight percent to nearly 500 per week, although this still remains well below record levels
The ‘Eris’ Covid variant — scientifically known as EG.5 — is currently dominant in the US behind about one in five cases, although Dr Gottlieb estimates this could be as many as half.
Concerns have also been raised over this strain, which appears to spread more rapidly than others.
But scientists say there is also nothing to suggest this is more likely to cause severe disease or death than previous strains.
In preparation for shoring up America’s Covid defenses this winter, a White House source said that everyone would be offered an updated booster.
These shots are designed to target the XBB variants — which are currently dominant in the US — with Moderna reporting last week that its shot also worked against the BA.X subvariant that is currently dominant in America.
They are set to be offered to all age groups, despite controversy over whether children and adults under 65 years old will need the top-up. In the UK, only adults older than 65 years are set to be offered the vaccine.