NEW YORK – As states lift mask rules and ease restrictions on restaurants and other businesses because of falling case numbers, public health officials say authorities are overlooking potentially more dangerous COVID-19 variants that are quietly spreading through the U.S.
Scientists widely agree that the U.S. simply doesn’t have enough of a handle on the variants to roll back public health measures and is at risk of fumbling yet another phase of the pandemic after letting the virus rage through the country over the last year and kill nearly 500,000 people.
“Now is not the time to fully open up," said Karthik Gangavarapu, a researcher at Scripps Research Institute whose team works closely with San Diego health officials to watch for mutant versions of the coronavirus. “We need to still be vigilant.”
Over the past two weeks, the daily averages for both coronavirus cases and deaths have dropped by about half in the U.S., according to data from Johns Hopkins University. And as of Wednesday, over 40 million people — about 12% of the population — had received at least one dose of a vaccine.
But experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky say the downward trend could reverse itself if new variants take hold.
The problem, as experts see it, is that the U.S. has been slow to ramp up a rigorous genetic surveillance system for tracking the variants’ spread and measuring how much of a foothold they have gained here.
“The fact of the matter is we’re kind of in the dark,” said Dr. Diane Griffin, who studies infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins. She said the variants are “probably widespread even if we don’t know it.”
On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced it will spend $200 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to triple its levels of genetic sequencing to identify mutations that might make the coronavirus more infectious or more deadly. Separately, Congress is considering a bill that would provide $1.75 billion for such work.