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Public Health Officials Express Concern As The Coronavirus Keeps Mutating

NOEL KING, HOST:

Why are COVID-19 cases surging in parts of Southeast Asia? In some cases, public health officials point to new, more transmissible variants. In Vietnam, officials found a new coronavirus variant over the weekend that appears to be a hybrid of two other strains. With me now is Dr. Ali Mokdad. He's with the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Good morning, Doctor, and thank you for being here.

ALI MOKDAD: Good morning.

KING: Where are we seeing new variants emerge? Is it the entire world at this point?

MOKDAD: Almost everywhere, especially right now in Asia. We're seeing it in Vietnam, Thailand and a lot of countries in that area.

KING: And is the variant that emerges in Vietnam, for example, the same variant that emerges in Thailand? Or are they different ones?

MOKDAD: They're mainly coming from what we have first discovered in India, and they are a variation of it.

KING: I see. So a variant emerges in India, then it spreads to Thailand, then it spreads to Vietnam - or maybe simultaneously - and then it becomes a different type of variant.

MOKDAD: Exactly.

KING: Wow.

MOKDAD: This virus is mutating at a faster rate than we have ever expected. And we are seeing new mutations every now and then, and many of them are very dangerous.

KING: OK. And in what way are they dangerous - more so than the original strain that we all experienced a year ago?

MOKDAD: They're more likely to be transmitted. This is the one we have seen, and it was the U.K. variant. And they're more likely to make the vaccines less effective. And previous infections are not as protective as well. So that's the problem - you have one that spread much faster, and it's more deadly.

KING: OK. Some of these variants are appearing in countries that were praised for their early handling of the pandemic, especially in Asia. What went wrong?

MOKDAD: This is a false sense of security. Unfortunately, with COVID-19, what we have learned - that no country is immune. And the fact that you have many of your public susceptible because you did a good job controlling COVID-19 in the past and you have an introduction of a new escape variant, you will see immediately a surge of cases.

KING: OK. What should these countries be doing?

MOKDAD: Several things. The first of it - sustaining mask use, implementation of social distancing measures when transmission begins to increase rapidly and, of course, preventing the spread of existing escape variants and new variants through careful control of travel.

KING: Do you expect to see more variants as time goes on?

MOKDAD: Yes, definitely. This virus is still mutating and has a lot of potential to mutate.

KING: And how do scientists identify the variances? Is it that somebody goes into the hospital, they say, I'm feeling ill, the scientists test for COVID - and then what happens? How do you know this is a new variant versus one that we've been dealing with for months now?

MOKDAD: That's the main problem. Many countries are not doing enough surveillance in terms of genomic sequencing of the virus. And some countries, like in the United States, out of every positive case, we do a random sample to test each of these samples to see what type of variant is circulating in every state.

KING: Are these countries not doing that testing because they don't have the resources?

MOKDAD: Yes, it's very expensive, and it requires a lot of effort, so many countries cannot do it or can do it in a limited capacity. And some countries who have the capacity are not doing what it takes in order to stay on top of it.

KING: What is the responsibility, then, of richer countries? And this is something we talked about a lot when India was really suffering, and India does continue to suffer. What is the responsibility of richer countries to help out? Is there something that, for example, the U.S. could be doing?

MOKDAD: Of course, rich countries should share the vaccines if they have extra vaccines, of course. And the main thing we need to remember, all of us, none of us is safe until everybody is safe. If the virus is still mutating in other countries, it will be introduced to our country. So, yes, rich countries should step up and help poor countries in terms of vaccinating and providing the resources to do the genomic surveillance to find out what variants are circulating everywhere.

KING: Well, you mentioned that some of these variants may make vaccines less effective. Do we know at this point which vaccines? And how do they make them less effective?

MOKDAD: Yes, the Moderna vaccines are by far the best right now, and we are lucky in the United States to have them. But you take a vaccine like AstraZeneca right now, and we have enough data that it's about 10% effective against some of these new escape variants, such as the one in India and the one that has first been diagnosed in Brazil and then South Africa.

KING: Is there a scenario in which this virus continues to mutate and here in the U.S. we start seeing surges like what we are seeing in Southeast Asia and including among people who are already vaccinated?

MOKDAD: It's possible. It depends on the level of vaccination we have in the United States, and that's why it's very important for all of us to go and get our vaccine, to control the spread of this virus that's in our country and prevent further mutations. And, of course, coming winter, when we move indoors and we will have a rise in infection simply because the seasonality of the virus, we could be at a danger.

KING: Well, let me ask you about that. I mean, we are hitting the summer. We are - I know many of us, millions of us, are excited about going back outside again, returning to normal. Do you think we are jumping the gun? Are we moving too quickly to normal?

MOKDAD: We're moving too quickly a little bit, yes, by far. But we need to be very careful. This summer is going to be very close to normal, and all of us deserve a good summer, but we need to be ready to put on our masks and go back to our social distancing measures as soon as the cases start going up, which is early winter.

KING: OK. As these variants mutate and spread, do you think we are looking at a situation where each of us is going to have to get a booster shot every September or October, not just for the flu but for COVID now?

MOKDAD: Yes. I mean, we need to plan for it. That's what you do in preparedness; you plan for the worst-case scenarios and hope it will never happen. And yes, we need to be ready to take a booster. And many of the vaccine companies are making already a booster to take care of the new variants.

KING: Dr. Ali Mokdad of the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Thank you so much for being with us this morning. We appreciate your time.

MOKDAD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.