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CDC eyes the latest omicron subvariant which is spreading in Europe

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When it comes to the pandemic, we have a kind of early warning system. Surges that hit Europe often come before surges here. And right now, the latest subvariant of omicron is spreading in Europe. Case numbers are climbing in a number of countries, just as officials lifted safeguards. Here in the United States, all 50 states have dropped universal indoor masking mandates and other restrictions. Dr. Rochelle Walensky is following all of this. She is director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Walensky, welcome back.

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Thanks for having me. Good to be with you. Good morning.

INSKEEP: How worried should Americans be about this BA.2 subvariant?

WALENSKY: So this is a subvariant we've been actually following now for a couple of months. We've had cases here in the United States since about mid-December. Here's what we know about BA.2. It's slightly more transmissible than omicron, than the general omicron, BA.1. But it doesn't seem to evade our vaccines or our immunity any more than the prior omicron. And it doesn't seem to lead to any more increased severity of disease. So that is all good news. Early studies also demonstrate that if you've previously had omicron, you likely have pretty good protection against BA.2, at least for now.

INSKEEP: Is it still wise, though, to have just dropped the mask mandates and other restrictions in state after state after state?

WALENSKY: You know, as we are following this - and we just two weeks ago released our new COVID-19 community levels, which really look at how much severe disease we have in the community. And just yesterday, we demonstrated that really less than 1% of the population is living in areas where we believe that masking should be required at this point or should be advised at this point. What we do know is that we anticipate that what has happened in the U.K. and other countries is that with BA.2, with some waning immunity and with a decrease in prevention strategies and mitigation, more opening up, that they are starting to see a slight increase in cases. And we are carefully watching for that as well.

INSKEEP: I want to ask a question about funding here. Congress did not add $22 billion to a spending package to continue a COVID-19 program. The White House now says it's going to start to wind down a program that pays for testing and treatment and vaccination for people who aren't insured. Now, it's not your business to say what Congress should or shouldn't do, but let's just talk strictly about facts. Do you and do the administration have the money you need to appropriately address this situation?

WALENSKY: What I can do is speak to some of the challenges that resources - lack of resources will lead to for us here at the CDC. CDC plays a key role in the distribution and monitoring of vaccines, including distribution through our pharmacies and through our physicians, and including following our vaccine safety and monitoring systems. We also are looking to that support for how - looking at how well our vaccines work over time in these long-term studies and really how well - and really the impact of long COVID, studies that we anticipate we will need to follow for not just months but years. We use those resources to monitor for variants, not just here but across the globe, and to support a global effort so that we can vaccinate more across the world and work to make sure that new variants don't arise.

INSKEEP: Are you telling me that you do not currently have the funding for those initiatives you just described?

WALENSKY: Certainly, we need more in order to be able to maintain all of those activities.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about another question because you mentioned vaccination. As you know, Moderna has asked the FDA to authorize a fourth dose of vaccine for a lot of adults. What are your early thoughts about that proposal?

WALENSKY: We are following the protection of these vaccines very carefully. What we've seen so far is that the people who've had a third shot who were boosted earliest still maintain a high level of protection, around 78%, against hospitalizations and severe disease even after four or five months. This is just the first of many studies that we continue to follow, and we do anticipate that there may be more waning and that people may need more protection over time. We're following that now. We certainly will review the data that both Pfizer and Moderna have and will submit. And we look forward to bringing in collaboration with the FDA a fourth shot should it need to occur. And we're monitoring that very carefully.

INSKEEP: I feel like you're telling me that there might be a time when a fourth shot is smart, but this might not be the time.

WALENSKY: And it may vary by population. So those are all the - you know, it's timing, it's in whom, it's when. And so all of those are the data that we're following very carefully now.

INSKEEP: I want to ask a question, Dr. Walensky, about transparency. This is a question from our correspondents who cover the CDC and who have covered the pandemic. They have questions about it because the CDC promised greater transparency. The Biden administration generally has promised greater transparency. The CDC promised regular briefings, and we're told they've been fairly rare. Are you giving enough information often enough?

WALENSKY: So many of our data on - in fact, all of our data on our vaccine, vaccine waning, vaccine effectiveness is publicly available. We have been putting forward our science in - that's COVID related about every 48 hours. We have a new Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. I have - since I started, I've done more than 90 press conferences, I can tell you. And we continue to bring science in CDC-specific press conferences with our subject matter experts, and we continue to do more of those.

INSKEEP: So it sounds like you're saying you are transparent enough.

WALENSKY: And we are working to get more of our science out there in a very speedy fashion during pandemic times.

INSKEEP: Dr. Walensky, it's a pleasure talking with you again. Thank you so much.

WALENSKY: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Dr. Rochelle Walensky is director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.