Members of the White House COVID-19 response team said Friday that it is urgent that the U.S. vaccinate people at a rapid rate in order to prevent the spread of new variants of the virus which are spreading throughout the country.
"The virus will continue to mutate and will mutate to its own advantage," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, said during a briefing Friday. "...if a virus can't spread, it can't mutate."
In recent weeks, a strain that originated in the U.K. has spread to more than half of states throughout the country. The CDC has confirmed that there have been more than 300 cases of the new strain that is thought to be more contagious.
On Thursday, officials in South Carolina announced it had detected the first two cases of a strain of a South African variant of the virus. On Friday, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington projected that the U.S. could lose an additional 200,000 people to COVID-19 by May if the South African variant takes hold throughout the country.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, said Friday the agency is directing states to step up surveillance of dozens of new strains of the virus. But she added the best way to protect against the new strains was to continue social distancing and to wear a mask.
"Now is not the time to travel," Walensky added.
In terms of using vaccines in order to fight against new strains of the virus, the COVID-19 response team got good news Friday morning when Johnson & Johnson released promising statistics regarding its single-shot dose. Fauci said that while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine isn't as effective in fighting moderate cases of the virus as Moderna's or Pfizer's vaccine, the Johnson & Johnson candidate offers its own strengths.
Fauci pointed to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine's effectiveness against severe cases (85%), noting that it would help save lives. He also noted several features of the candidate that could help distribution logistics — the vaccine requires only one dose, it does not require super-cold storage (though it does need to be refrigerated) and it is cheaper to manufacture.
In terms of distribution, team adviser Andy Slavitt said Friday that the country is currently distributing 1.2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine each day, adding that his team felt that was a "floor" rather than a ceiling.
Slavitt said that the federal government intended to increase the distribution of vaccines to states by 16% week over week in the coming months, but urged Congress to pass President Joe Biden's proposed stimulus plan to help fund the logistical challenge of getting shots into arms.
Earlier this week, President Joe Biden said he planned to purchase an additional 200 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine and that those doses should be available later in the summer.
During the team's first-ever briefing on Wednesday, Walensky noted that while the spread of the virus appeared to be slowing, case rates remain extremely high.
"Now is the time to remain vigilant," Walensky said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier this week that the COVID-19 response team planned to hold "regular" briefings about three times a week moving forward.