Former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb talks with Margaret Brennan on "Face the Nation" in Washington DC March 8, 2020
  • Former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said Tuesday that the South African Covid-19 variant is "very concerning" because it may get around antibody drugs that try to help the body fight infection.
  • Speaking to CNBC, he said evidence from Seattle-based Bloom Lab, which hasn't been peer-reviewed, suggested that the South Africa variant can partially escape antibodies that fight coronavirus.
  • This means antibody drugs used to treat Covid-19 — or the antibodies in someone previously infected with coronavirus — might not be effective against the new variant, he said.
  • No cases of the variant, which appears to be more infectious and is known as B.1.351 or 501Y.V2, have yet been detected in the US.
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Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has warned that the South African coronavirus variant may evade antibody drugs that treat Covid-19.

Speaking on CNBC on Wednesday, he said that early evidence from Seattle-based Bloom Lab, which hasn't been peer-reviewed, suggested that the South Africa variant can partially escape antibodies that fight coronavirus.

This means antibody drugs used to treat Covid-19 - or the antibodies in someone previously infected with Covid-19 - might not be effective against the new variant, known as B.1.351 or 501Y.V2, he said.

No cases of the variant, which appears to be more infectious, have been detected in the US.

Gottlieb said that it's now a race against time to get vaccines into people's arms before new variants become more prevalent in the US. 

"We don't know exactly because we don't know exactly how this variant has behaved in people who have been treated with these different approaches [antibody drugs]," he said.

"Vaccines can become backstop against variants really getting a foothold here in the United States, but we need to quicken the pace of vaccination," he said.

The contagious coronavirus variant first identified in the UK, known as B.1.1.7, has been detected in several states in the US, and has likely been circulating for several weeks

Gottlieb: stockpile fewer vaccines to make them more available

Gottlieb did not advocate changing the vaccine schedule - for example prioritising the first dose, like the UK has done - but instead pushing out more vaccine. He said that this could be done by "taking a risk" and stockpiling 25% of the vaccine that gets manufactured, rather than 55%, to make more vaccines available.

It's normal for viruses to mutate over time. However, the South African and UK variants are causing concern because they have an unusual number of mutations, including in the spike protein, the part of the virus that binds to human cells to infect them. It's likely that this makes them more contagious. 

The South African variant has also been associated with a higher viral load, a higher concentration of virus particles in the body, possibly contributing to higher levels of transmission, per Reuters.

Scientists are still investigating exactly how the different mutations change the virus' behaviour, including whether the vaccines available will work against them. Experts have predicted that vaccines will still work against the UK variant, but it's less clear for the South African variant.

Sir John Bell, professor of immunology at the University of Oxford, told Times Radio on Sunday that there's a "big question mark" as to whether vaccines will work for the South African variant, because there's not much information about it.

Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases expert at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, is investigating whether vaccines work against the South Africa variant. He said told the Associated Press on Monday that this is "the most pressing question facing us right now." 

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