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"We're Very Worried" About This COVID Variant, Health Expert Says

It seems to be resistant to vaccines.
FACT CHECKED BY Alek Korab
Doctor studying virus bacteria in the lab

COVID variants spreading worldwide threaten to prolong the pandemic and require a global response, said epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, on Sunday.

During an interview on NBC's Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd asked Osterholm about the severity of a coronavirus mutation called E484K, nicknamed 'Eek,' which has been found in hospitalized patients in Japan and is known for evading the protection of vaccines. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Signs Your Illness is Actually Coronavirus in Disguise.

Global Strategy to Fight Variants Needed

"I'm concerned about all the variants," said Osterholm. "Before November, we really didn't understand that this virus would mutate as it does, and that in terms of its mutations, it can do one of three things. One, it can be much more infectious. Two, it can cause more severe illnesses. Or three, in some instances, it can actually evade the immune protection from the vaccine or from having previously been infected. If you're talking about that particular variant, it is one that does evade the protection of the vaccine or natural infection. Not totally, but it surely compromises them. We're very worried about this."

Osterholm added he was "even more worried about what's coming down the pike over the next several years" because of uneven vaccine distribution worldwide. "Ten countries have received about 80% of the vaccine," he said. "Thirty countries have not even seen a drop of it. If we continue to see this virus spread throughout the low- and middle-income countries, unfettered, they're going to spit out variants over the course of the next years that in each and every instance could challenge our vaccines. 

"This is why we need not only a U.S. response, but we need a global response to get as many people in low-and middle-income countries vaccinated," he said. "So we don't risk the capability of our own vaccines right here. Now, this is about vaccine security."

RELATED: Doctors Say "DO NOT" Do This After Your COVID Vaccine.

COVID Still "Category 5 Hurricane" in the U.S.

As for right now, the U.S. is in "just at the beginning" of a surging fourth wave of the virus, Osterholm said. "At this time, we really are in a Category 5 hurricane status with regard to the rest of the world," he said. "We will see in the next two weeks, the highest number of cases reported globally since the end of the pandemic."

Over the past year, surges in the upper Midwest and Northeast have been followed by increases in cases in the South and Sun Belt. In recent weeks, hot spots have appeared in the Northeast, Michigan and Minnesota. "We're just at the beginning of this surge. We haven't even really begun to see it yet," said Osterholm. "I think it was a wake-up call to everyone yesterday when Michigan reported 8,400 new cases. And we're now seeing an increasing number of severe illnesses and ICU hospitalization in individuals who are between 30 and 50 years of age who have not been vaccinated."

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How to Survive This Pandemic

As for yourself, do everything you can to prevent getting—and spreading—COVID-19 in the first place: Wear a face mask, get tested if you think you have coronavirus, avoid crowds (and bars, and house parties), practice social distancing, only run essential errands, wash your hands regularly, disinfect frequently touched surfaces, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.