Dr. Dial Hewlett, medical director of the division of disease control at Westchester County Department of Health and a fellow at the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA), said that lowering the number of people susceptible to the virus should continue to be a key goal.
"If we are able to immunize enough people over a short period of time, then we are going to be able to get around this problem of new variants," he said during an IDSA media briefing on Thursday. "The virus has to have a host in order to survive."
Several studies have suggested that the currently-approved mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna may not offer as much protection against the South African variant as it does others. On Wednesday, the White House announced that a variant with the elusive E48K mutation was detected in the U.S., raising further concern about vaccine efficacy.
"I think from a public standpoint, we’re definitely concerned about variants," Dr. Matthew Zahn, medical director of the division of epidemiology and assessment at Orange County Health Care Agency, said during the briefing. "Absent the variant question, I think we see a direct line forward. The vaccines work, they are effective and as we get more people vaccinated with will make the disease substantially go away."
However, Zahn noted, the variant issue does raise questions of its own due to the uncertainty surrounding it. He added that the vaccines, despite initial data showing lowered efficacy, do still offer some level of protection.
"We remain cautiously optimistic," he said. "Clearly we will learn a great deal over the next few months as people get vaccinated and we follow the epidemiology of the variants."