Dr. Fauci Just Gave a "Pretty Troublesome" Update on What's Next for COVID

There's a major new coronavirus concern that could make for a painful few months.

The tides seem to have turned on the COVID front. In September, President Joe Biden declared that "the pandemic is over," and while many experts believed that was preemptive, the data has been trending in an encouraging direction. The majority of communities in the U.S. are currently experiencing low levels of virus spread, while only 2 percent are struggling with high transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But we can't turn our back on the battle altogether, officials have cautioned. And now, Anthony Fauci, MD, the nation's top virus expert, has just given a "pretty troublesome" update on the future of the pandemic. Read on to find out what he says is next for COVID.

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COVID numbers are currently falling.

Woman having a nasal swab test. Shot of a young woman having a nasal swab test done by her doctor.

There's no doubt that COVID's impact on the U.S. has waned over the past couple months. In August, the CDC said that although the virus continues to circulate, high levels of immunity from vaccines and prior infection alongside effective treatments and prevention tools have "substantially reduced" the threat of COVID in this country. The agency's latest data indicates that new cases have fallen 11.9 percent in the last week, while hospitalizations have declined by 4.4 percent and deaths are down by 8.5 percent.

But there are still worrying signs. On Oct. 13, the U.S. extended the COVID public health emergency through Jan. 11—which, as CNBC explained, is a "clear demonstration that the Biden administration still views COVID as a crisis." For his part, Fauci is raising a red flag as well.

Here's what COVID might do next.

There's no guarantee that COVID will continue on its downward trajectory—especially given that a concerning new variant is gaining steam. According to CBS News, the COVID variant BQ.1 was just named a little over a month ago. But current CDC data shows that it and its descendant BQ.1.1 have already grown to make up more than 10 percent of new infections across the U.S.

During an Oct. 14 interview with CBS News, Fauci discussed the new variant. "When you get variants like that, you look at what their rate of increase is as a relative proportion of the variants, and this has a pretty troublesome doubling time," he said. "As much as you want to feel good about the fact that cases are down, hospitalizations are down, we don't want to declare victory too prematurely. And that's the reason why we've got to keep our eye out on these emerging variants."

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There are concerns about the evasiveness of this new variant.

A pair of scientists working in a lab while wearing full protective gear, with one holding a syringe

We've seen plenty of other variants spread during the reign of BA.5, which "remains the dominant lineage in the United States," CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund said in a statement. But BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 are "fast-growing" subsets of the original Omicron variant, according to Nordlund, and there are reasons why we should be watching them carefully.

Research shows there are a "sizable number of unique mutations" with BQ.1.1. Fauci explained to CBS News that the variant's mutations could potentially evade COVID medications like Evusheld, an antibody drug used to help protect immunocompromised Americans from the virus. "That's the reason why people are concerned about BQ.1.1, for the double reason of its doubling time and the fact that it seems to elude important monoclonal antibodies," Fauci said.

But we can try to mitigate a potential COVID surge.

On Oct. 14, Scripps Research founder Eric Topol, MD, said that the immune evasiveness of BQ.1.1 is setting it up to "be the principal driver of [the] next U.S. wave in the weeks ahead." Nevertheless, Fauci told CBS News that the newly updated COVID boosters from Pfizer and Moderna would potentially help curb a surge driven by the BQ.1 lineage.

"The bad news is that there's a new variant that's emerging and that has qualities or characteristics that could evade some of the interventions we have," he said. "But, the somewhat encouraging news is that it's a BA.5 sublineage, so there are almost certainly going to be some cross protection that you can boost up."

The CDC's latest data shows that the pace of Americans getting new COVID shots is slowing. "That's the thing that's so frustrating for me and for my colleagues who are involved in this, is that we have the capability of mitigating against this," Fauci noted. "And the uptake of the new bivalent vaccine is not nearly as high as we would like it to be."

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