WASHINGTON: Total US COVID-19 cases surpassed 18 million on Tuesday (Dec 22) as health officials tried to tamp down fears about a new, highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus in the United Kingdom.
Reports of the new virus variant in England, which prompted a pre-Christmas lockdown and caused dozens of countries to close their borders to British travellers this week, have spurred talks among US state officials of mandatory COVID-19 testing for travellers from the UK and a possible quarantine mandate.
News of the mutated variant comes as the United States deals with a surge in new infections that is overwhelming hospitals in some states. The latest million new cases were recorded in just six days, according to a Reuters tally, as US COVID-19 fatalities approach 320,000, the most in the world.
The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said on Tuesday that the coronavirus variant had not yet been detected in the United States, and some US health officials sought to assuage fears about it.
US Health Secretary Alex Azar told Fox News that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, which received US emergency use authorisations this month, should be effective at preventing illness from the variant of the virus.
Moderna and BioNTech, which worked with Pfizer to develop its vaccine, are scrambling to test their shots against the variant, but expressed confidence in them.
"Scientifically it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine can also deal with this virus variant,” BioNTech Chief Executive Ugur Sahin told reporters.
More than 600,000 Americans, mostly healthcare workers, received their first COVID-19 vaccine doses as of Monday, according to the CDC. Some states began vaccinating long-term care facility residents on Monday.
Dr Anthony Fauci said on Tuesday that spread of the British variant needs to be monitored but officials should not overreact.
"Travel bans are really rather draconian things to do," Fauci told ABC News' "Good Morning America."
Fauci, Azar and National Institutes of Health (NIH) head Dr. Francis Collins rolled up their sleeves to receive the Moderna shot - which the NIH helped develop - on live television on Tuesday.
'EVERYTHING NEEDS TO BE ON THE TABLE'
State and federal officials are strategizing how to prevent the spread of the new virus variant in the United States.
On Monday, the White House coronavirus task force discussed the possibility of requiring all passengers travelling from the UK to receive a negative test within 72 hours of departure. But Washington does not plan to implement the rule for now, people briefed on the matter said on Tuesday.
Michael Osterholm, a pandemic adviser for President-elect Joe Biden, said all options need to be considered, and he urged the Trump administration to come up with a plan now, even as the Biden team is preparing to take office on Jan 20.
"We really need to develop a national response," he told CNN. "Everything needs to be on the table."
He said the United States could mandate a 14-day quarantine for travellers from the UK as an added precaution beyond requiring a negative test result.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee on Monday mandated a 14-day quarantine for travellers arriving in his state from the UK, South Africa or other "countries with circulation of a new, potentially more contagious COVID-19 variation."
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he asked airlines to add the state to a list of 120 countries that require COVID-19 screening for incoming air travellers.
"The United States should say the same thing that New York said. Say that people need to test before they come from the UK," Cuomo said on a Tuesday call with reporters.