The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday said 83% of sequenced coronavirus samples in the U.S. are the dreaded delta variant that spreads rapidly and is fueling fears of a major setback in the pandemic fight at home and abroad.
“This is a dramatic increase, up from 50% the week of July 3rd,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told the Senate Health Committee. “In some parts of the country, the percentage is even higher, particularly in areas of low vaccination rates.”
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. counties have vaccination rates of less than 40%, she said, “allowing for the emergence and rapid spread of the highly transmissible delta variant.”
The delta variant was first detected in India after the country had a terrible spike in cases earlier this year.
Federal officials are worried the variant will hamstring efforts to turn the corner amid the pandemic, as average daily case counts rise to roughly 30,000 per day — the worst level since mid-May.
The uptick spooked Wall Street on Monday and is prompting debates in some areas about whether mask mandates were lifted too early or should return.
The delta variant “has the capability of transmitting efficiently from human to human in an extraordinary manner, well beyond any of the other variants we have experienced until now,” testified Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Data from Israel suggest the vaccines are only 64% protective against infection from the delta variant, though 93% effective at staving off severe illness.
Delta’s spread is fueling reports of “breakthrough infections” in vaccinated persons who are tested, although the CDC recently said that 97% of people who end up in the hospital for COVID-19 are unvaccinated.
“We have the tools to end this epidemic. It is up to us to use those tools to the maximum,” Dr. Fauci told senators.
Some unvaccinated people argue it should be up to them to risk hospitalization or death if they are leery of the vaccines.
The Biden administration, hoping to raise vaccination levels that are stuck at about 50% of the U.S. population, says people owe it to their communities to get immunized and wrangle the virus outright.
Last week, Dr. Fauci said scientists are collecting data on whether vaccinated persons transmit the virus with any frequency, though there are signs they are less likely to spread it.
“I think one can make the reasonable assumption based on the level of virus in the nasal pharynx that it would be less likely that a vaccinated breakthrough person would transmit, compared to an unvaccinated person,” Dr. Fauci told reporters.
Officials also are concerned about stress on health systems in poorly vaccinated areas or children under 12, who are ineligible for the vaccine right now, getting infected.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville, Alabama Republican, said the administration should acknowledge former President Donald Trump’s efforts to develop, test and manufacture the vaccines in record time. He said it could lift vaccination rates in conservative places like his own state, where only a third of the population is fully vaccinated.
The Biden administration as a whole rarely acknowledges Mr. Trump’s “Operation Warp Speed” initiative, instead crediting drugmakers and scientists, though Dr. Fauci said he worked on “both sides of the fence” and saw the process unfold.
“I can tell you that no doubt that the former administration deserves a considerable amount of credit for the effort that was put into Operation Warp Speed that was able to allow not only the rapid development and testing but also the implementation of the vaccine,” Dr. Fauci told the committee.
While officials push for wider protection, there is a debate over booster shots for people who received their vaccinations up to eight months ago.
Sen. Mitt Romney, Utah Republican, said third doses are being distributed to older adults and people with health issues in places like Israel so he wants U.S. regulators to make additional doses available to people who want them in the U.S.
“We’re looking at all that,” Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, told him.
Dr. Woodcock said that Pfizer has publicly stated its intention to seek emergency approval for a third dose, though Mr. Romney said they need to speed up.
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, said he is worried about past actions by the federal government.
In an extraordinary exchange, he accused Dr. Fauci of lying to Congress — a crime — by claiming on May 11 the National Institutes of Health did not fund a type of research that could make viruses more transmissible or dangerous to humans.
The senator pointed to a paper in which the Wuhan lab’s lead doctor credited NIH with supporting work that involved the combination of two bat coronavirus genes to create something not found in nature.
Dr. Fauci said “qualified staff” determined it did not constitute gain-of-function research and took offense at the insinuation his agency might have led to the creation of the virus that causes COVID-19.
“I have never lied before the Congress and I do not retract that statement,” Dr. Fauci told Mr. Paul. “You do not know what you are talking about, quite frankly, and I want to say that officially.”
Mr. Paul said Dr. Fauci’s stance did not comport with his reading of the gain-of-function definition.
“It’s a dance,” he told Dr. Fauci, “and you’re dancing around this.”