A key member of President Trump’s vaccine team said it isn’t unclear whether a variant of the coronavirus that’s forcing countries to ban travel from the U.K. is truly more contagious or if sequencing of the pathogen revealed the extent of a surge in southern England.
“It may be just seeding happened in the shadows and we’re seeing the transmissibility,” said Moncef Slaoui, a science adviser for Operation Warp Speed.
He said scientists are working on experiments to demonstrate whether the strain is better at racing through the population.
The good news is the variant, which also has been detected in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, doesn’t appear to cause more severe disease.
Mr. Slaoui said he also doesn’t expect this mutation to elude the immune response produced by available vaccines, given how the shots interact with the spike protein of the virus.
“My expectation is this will not be a problem,” Mr. Slaoui said.
Still, the mutation is causing alarm, after U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested over the weekend the strain could be 70% more contagious. The estimate is based on modeling, though not animal tests that might provide more proof.
He ordered nonessential stores to close amid the Christmas shopping season and told households not to mix with each other over the holiday.
The European Union is meeting Monday to develop a common strategy for dealing with the new strain, which was first detected in September.
The development spread gloom on Wall Street, eclipsing hopes around a federal stimulus deal, and countries around the globe raced to shut off travel from the U.K.
France suspended freight transit across the English Channel for 48 hours and Saudi Arabia shut its doors to international travel altogether.
Those closures heaped pressure on U.S. officials to restrict travel from the U.K.
“I think everything is possible. We just need to put everything on the table, have an open scientific discussion and make the best recommendation,” Adm. Brett Giroir, the U.S. coronavirus testing “czar,” told CNN.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he isn’t waiting for federal action.
Starting Tuesday, passengers who board British Airways flights to his state must show a negative test before departure. He said he’s working on similar rules with Delta Airlines and Virgin Atlantic.
Mr. Cuomo fumed over federal travel restrictions earlier this year, as New York got slammed by the virus. He said the U.S. shut the front door to China but left the back door open to transmission from Europe.
“We can’t let history repeat itself with this new virus variant,” the Democrat said on Twitter.