Speed Reads

Sunday shows

Why the U.S. may not be aware of new coronavirus variant's presence

Former Food and Drug Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said Sunday that the new, possibly more transmissible coronavirus variant first identified in the United Kingdom is "probably" already in the United States in "low numbers," especially since it's been detected in Canada, Japan, Australia, Singapore, and several European countries. But he told CBS News' Margaret Brennan that it's not a surprise that it may have slipped under the radar.

That's because the U.S. doesn't sequence coronavirus samples frequently and the sequencing that does get done often happens in private labs, meaning that the government doesn't really trace viral genomes. "In the U.K., they're sequencing about 10 percent of all the samples, here we're doing a fraction of 1 percent," Gottlieb said during his appearance on Face the Nation. "We probably need a better approach to more systematically sequence strains in the United States to track changes and new variants in this virus."

Scientists do believe there's a solid chance the variant is more transmissible, though it's possible it simply became the dominant form of the coronavirus in London and southeast England. Tracking it more closely in other countries like the U.S., therefore, could help shed light on the theory. There is no evidence suggesting the variant differs from others in terms of severity, and scientists remain confident vaccines will hold up against it, although more testing and data collection is required to know for sure.