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Just As Vaccine Distribution Begins, New COVID-19 Variants Arrive In U.S.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

More people are getting vaccinated in the U.S. More than 20 million have gotten their first doses so far. And while infection rates are still high, the winter surge of the pandemic seems to be slowing down. But public health officials urge against complacency as a new threat has emerged, and that's variants of the coronavirus that seem to be more transmissible and may evade some treatments and vaccines.

NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now. Rob, thanks for being with us.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: We just can't seem to catch a break with this virus. Please bring us up to date on the latest about all these variants.

STEIN: Yeah, you know, Scott, every time scientists think they have a handle on this virus, it seems to surprise them again. And like you say, the emergence of these strains is the latest curveball. First, the U.K. detected a variant that spread like wildfire through London even though it was locked down. It's now spreading in at least 29 states in this country.

Then, two other variants were spotted, one in South Africa and one in Brazil, that also looked like they're more contagious. The one from Brazil was found for the first time in this country earlier this week in Minnesota. And just days later, health officials announced two people had caught the one from South Africa completely independently in two different parts of South Carolina. So it appears that variant's been quietly spreading in that state and probably other parts of the country. So all three of the variants that scientists are most concerned about are here now.

Here's what Dr. Anthony Fauci said about all this during a briefing yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: This is a wake-up call to all of us that we will be dealing - as the virus uses its devices to evade pressure, that we will continue to see the evolution of mutants.

STEIN: And, you know, those aren't the only variants. Scientists are studying one that's taken over in Los Angeles to figure out whether that spreads faster, too.

SIMON: But as we're given to understand it, Rob, the speed with which these variants spread isn't the only reason scientists are so concerned, is it?

STEIN: No. The British government says the U.K. strain might also make people sicker. Now, that's far from clear yet. But, you know, regardless, if these strains spread faster, then more people will get infected, and more people will end up getting sick and dying. And that's not all. Some of those monoclonal antibody drugs may not work as well against them. And the big worry is these variants may have evolved the ability to outwit the vaccines.

SIMON: What about the vaccines that so many people are getting and trying to get now? Will they work against these strains?

STEIN: Well, you know, there are laboratory studies that suggest the shots people are getting may not work as well against the variant from South Africa. And just in the last couple of days, two drug companies reported some unnerving findings about two new vaccines. A company called Novavax reported that its vaccine appears to be far less effective against that strain, too. And Johnson & Johnson reported the same thing about its one-shot vaccine.

Now, it's important to remember that scientists are stressing that all the vaccines still appear to provide pretty good protection and do appear to keep people from getting really sick and dying. But the protection just doesn't look like it's quite as strong.

SIMON: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thanks so much.

STEIN: You bet, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.