MONDAY, Jan. 25, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- As more infectious coronavirus variants first detected in Britain and South Africa circulate globally, President Joe Biden plans to bar travel by non-citizens into the United States from South Africa.
A White House official said Sunday that the South Africa travel ban would go into effect on Jan. 30 and that an existing ban would be extended on non-citizen travelers from Europe and Brazil, The New York Times reported.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently warned that the British coronavirus variant could become the dominant source of infections in the United States by March and would likely trigger surges in cases and deaths. As of Monday, the British variant has been detected in 22 states, the CDC reported.
The agency has also announced a new policy that requires all arriving international air passengers, regardless of vaccination status, to be tested for the coronavirus within three days of their departure for the United States, and to provide written documentation of their test results or proof of having recovered from COVID-19.
The South African coronavirus variant has yet to be detected in the United States, but small studies published last week show that it is less susceptible to antibodies created by natural infection or by vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna, which have both been authorized for emergency use in the United States, the European Union and elsewhere. Those vaccines can be altered in a matter of weeks, but experts warn that it would be difficult to update them constantly, the Times reported.
There was better news on Monday, however: In a small study involving 8 patients, Moderna said that although its vaccine did show a sixfold reduction in levels of antibodies when pitted against the South Africa variant, those antibodies "remain above levels that are expected to be protective," the Times reported.
Dr. Tal Zaks, Moderna's chief medical officer, told the newspaper it is already developing a booster vaccine that could perform better against the South Africa variant "to be ahead of the curve should we need to."
Meanwhile, coronavirus vaccines have held up against the British variant in one study. But during a media briefing in London on Friday, Prime minister Boris Johnson said that the variant was not only more contagious but may also be more deadly. While scientists agree that the evidence of the so-called British variant's greater lethality is preliminary and based on limited data, U.S. health officials took note of the news.
"We need to assume now what has been circulating dominantly in the U.K. does have an increase in what we call virulence to cause more damage, including death," Dr. Anthony Fauci told CBS News on Sunday.
Biden warns of 500,000 COVID deaths by February
As President Joe Biden began to enact key parts of his ambitious pandemic response plan, he warned Americans that the coronavirus death toll in this country could top 500,000 by February.
"Let me be very clear: Things are going to continue to get worse before they get better," Biden said. "And let me be equally clear: We will get through this. We will defeat this pandemic."
He tackled mask-wearing first, signing an order mandating masks in airports and on many planes, trains, ships and intercity buses, the Washington Post reported. The move follows the Wednesday signing of his first executive order, which requires masks on federal property.
That is as close to a national mask mandate as Biden's federal powers allow, leaving it to states and municipalities to require residents to wear masks at a local level, the Post reported.
Next on the agenda: speeding up the nation's vaccine rollout.
Biden has repeatedly promised to get 100 million COVID-19 shots into the arms of the American people by his 100th day in office. To help do so, he's directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to begin constructing federally supported community vaccination centers, with the goal of having 100 centers in operation within the next month, the Times reported.
It's a lofty goal that's already beginning to be met. On Saturday, the United States reported more than 1.3 million newly administered doses of coronavirus vaccine, and the daily tally was more than 1.1 million by late Sunday afternoon, the Post reported. It marked the sixth day in a row the country has topped 1 million daily doses.
As of Monday, more than 21.8 million Americans have been vaccinated while more than 41.4 million doses have been distributed, according to the CDC. Over 3.2 million people have received their second shot.
Other parts of the Biden plan include the creation of a Pandemic Testing Board that can orchestrate a "surge" in the number and availability of coronavirus tests. Additional directives will foster research into new treatments for COVID-19, strengthen the collection and analysis of data to shape the government's pandemic strategy; and direct the federal occupational safety agency to release and enforce guidelines to protect workers from getting infected, the Post reported.
The new plan also steers more money to states, which have complained they need more funding to test and vaccinate residents. And the White House will try to persuade Congress to cover the entire cost for states to vaccinate low-income residents on Medicaid, the Post said.
On Thursday, Biden authorized the use of the Defense Production Act to increase vaccine supplies. "This is a wartime undertaking," Biden said, noting that more Americans have died of COVID-19 than in all of World War II.
But the president, who has proposed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package, will need the cooperation of Congress to carry out much of his ambitious plan, which also includes greatly expanding testing of asymptomatic people to reopen schools and businesses, the Times said. He also intends to direct the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to issue new guidance on how to safely reopen schools.
Last but not least, Biden will create a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force to "address the disproportionate and severe impact of COVID-19 on communities of color and other underserved populations," the Times reported.
A global scourge
By Monday, the U.S. coronavirus case count passed 25.1 million while the death toll passed 419,000, according to a Times tally. On Monday, the top five states for coronavirus infections were: California with nearly 3.2 million cases; Texas with over 2.2 million cases; Florida with over 1.6 million cases; New York with more than 1.3 million cases; and Illinois with over 1.1 million cases.
Curbing the spread of the coronavirus in the rest of the world remains challenging.
In India, the coronavirus case count was over 10.6 million by Monday, a Johns Hopkins University tally showed. Brazil had over 8.8 million cases and over 217,000 deaths as of Monday, the Hopkins tally showed.
Worldwide, the number of reported infections passed 99.2 million on Monday, with more than 2.1 million deaths recorded, according to the Hopkins tally.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the new coronavirus.
SOURCES: The New York Times; Washington Post, CBS News