Collins said the mutations suggest the new variant could be very different from its predecessors, raising the possibility that it could escape the protections against Covid that had come from vaccines and antibodies.
The director of the National Institutes of Health said, “We have to find out. To be honest, it’s going to take two, three weeks, both in the lab and in the field, to find the answer. This is what all of us as scientists want to know.
The Biden administration and other governments were alarmed enough by the new variant to restrict travel from South Africa and some of its neighbors.
Gallagher noted that the first infections in Africa appeared to be mild, but Collins said it was too early to know if that would turn out to be the case.
“The initial cases are mostly young people, who tend to have mild infections anyway,” Collins said. “We need more data before we can confidently say that this is not a serious version of the virus. But we should find out in the next few weeks.
Collins said he hopes the new variant will be “one more wake-up call” for those who have not yet been vaccinated.
“It is clear that in all of the previous examples of variants, the vaccines worked to provide protection,” Collins said.
He added: “Vaccines are your seat belt. Use them. “