A mutated form of COVID-19 first identified in South Africa is indeed more transmissible but, at this time, does not appear to cause more severe disease, an infectious disease expert who is helping to advise the country’s health minister said.
The South African virus variant, known as 501Y.V2, has sparked serious concern, and the strain has already been described as more infectious than the COVID-19 virus identified at the start of the pandemic. In South Africa, it has rapidly become dominant in the country’s coastal areas. That said, experts at this time are confident that existing COVID-19 vaccines should still prove effective against mutated strains.
"We have seen data on viral loads being higher in patients that present with the variant," Ian Sanne, an infectious diseases doctor and a member of a panel of scientists who are advising the health minister in South Africa, told Bloomberg. "The variant is more transmissible, the second wave has been substantially impacted."
Though more transmissible, it does not appear to cause more severe illness at this time, he added.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, also spoke to the emerging variants, including a separate one identified in the United Kingdom, during an appearance on CNBC’s "Squawk Box" on Friday morning.
He said he wasn’t surprised to see new strains of the virus, and warned that one could emerge that is more deadly than COVID-19.
"It's possible that you're going to see strains emerge that are more pathogenic, that either cause more severe disease or bind more tightly to certain receptors. Many people seem to be surprised that the virus is mutating, but the reality is we've been with this virus now for a year — this is about the time you start to see new variants emerge."
Gottlieb’s comments came just days after he warned that the South African strain may "obviate" other countermeasures, including antibody drugs.
"The South Africa variant is very concerning right now because it does appear that may it obviate some of our medical countermeasures, particularly the antibody drugs," Gottlieb said when speaking to CNBC’s Shepard Smith late Tuesday.
Gottlieb stressed that prompt vaccination is crucial amid the worrying strain, which has already been identified in Austria, Switzerland, Japan, France, Zambia and the U.K.
"The vaccine can become a backstop against these variants really getting more of a foothold in the United States but we need to quicken the pace of vaccination," the former FDA head said.
Fox News' Kayla Rivas contributed to this report.