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‘We don’t know yet what caused this mutation:’ Doctor on new strain of coronavirus

Yahoo Finance’s Kristin Myers and immunotherapy scientist Dr. Leo Nissola discuss the latest strain of COVID-19.

Video Transcript

KRISTIN MYERS: I want to turn now to immunotherapy scientist Dr. Leo Nissola. Dr., thank you so much for joining us again. I want to ask you about that mutation that Anjalee was just describing. We hear that it's already reached the United States.

I'm wondering if folks should really start to get worried that this is going to make the pandemic worse.

LEO NISSOLA: Hi there, and thank you for having me. A pleasure to be here with you again. And I wish I had better news to share. Well, as you've seen in the news, and we've heard from multiple sources, that this new strain that first showed up in the UK is more contagious. It's more infectious.

And what that means is that this virus is getting from person to person more quickly than before. So we don't know yet what caused this new mutation, whether that is for selective pressure or something else that made those spike protein changes.

So what we know is that this new strain is called B117, and it makes it more easy for this virus to be infecting other people. As a lot of people have already shared these concerns in the news is-- we don't know if this is already in the United States.

So what concerns me is that at a federal level, we have not yet put travel restrictions in place. And that doesn't necessarily mean a travel ban. But it means that we should be looking into our testing capabilities and seeing if the tests that we have in the United States are capable to identify this new strain. And if not, we should be able to update them.

KRISTIN MYERS: Wait a minute, Dr. I want to interrupt you here, because I have to ask you--


KRISTIN MYERS: --are you telling me that there is the possibility that the tests we currently have might not even detect this new mutation and this new strain of the virus? So meaning, I guess, really-- because this is kind of stunning to me-- that if this new strain is already here in the United States, that someone could be out there and infected with it, perhaps asymptomatic, and the test might not even pick that up? That's what you're saying?

LEO NISSOLA: That's correct.


LEO NISSOLA: So we don't know if this new strain is here. And we don't know if the tests that we have already approved in the United States are capable of detecting this new strain. So we don't know that. So for all we know--

KRISTIN MYERS: So about these travel restrictions, then--

LEO NISSOLA: --this strain may be here already.

KRISTIN MYERS: So then about the travel restrictions-- I know that you're saying that perhaps we really need to rethink them. Should we also, then, really start considering that these flights that are coming from the UK, that we need to be setting up coronavirus screenings for passengers that are arriving on those flights? Because right now, the United States is not doing that.

LEO NISSOLA: Absolutely. I think-- I just heard Governor Cuomo say on TV today that New York is going to take that matters into their own hands. And I agree with that. Because we need, at a federal level, to be able to identify who is coming into the country, what they're bringing with them-- if that's a new strain of coronavirus or something else. And we have yet to see that.

But again, a problem on taking those measures into a state level is that someone could fly in from the UK to Chicago, for example, and then fly into New York. And then you'd miss that new strain or that new virus that potentially would be coming in with those people.

So there are many things that I'm concerned about. One of them is that I'm not sure if the tests that we have today that are already approved are capable of detecting this new strain. And I'm not sure if this virus, this new strain of the virus, is already here or not. That's unclear.

KRISTIN MYERS: Should the United States really start to consider more lock-downs, especially as we have news about this new strain, especially as we have the holidays and we know that folks are going to get together with their friends and with their family? We have Christmas. We have New Year's right after that.

And we know-- and you've come on this program and even said-- that the winter months are going to get only worse. We're not at the peak yet. We've got 18.2 million cases right now.

LEO NISSOLA: We're not.

KRISTIN MYERS: That number is only going to tick upward. So should we really start saying, hey, you know what? We actually need to close indoor dining, not just in New York City, but we should start closing indoor dining everywhere. We need to be far more restrictive than we're being right now, especially as this new strain might be out there, and we can't even detect it.

LEO NISSOLA: Well, a couple of things there-- I don't agree with the lock-down or free-for-all. What I do agree with is that there is a middle ground. There is the need for contact tracing, which is really difficult to implement in the United States because of civil liberties-- which, of course, there is the privacy concerns that, also, I think we should be discussing more actively.

For me, I think there is a need of making over-the-counter, free, at-home COVID testing more easily and accessible. We are only in the baby steps on making that happen. If you can get tested today and making sure that you test negative before going out to see your grandma, that would be an incredible thing. But it's really difficult to do.

Trust me. I've tried to go that route with my own family and with my own loved ones. It's not easy. You still have to jump a lot of different hoops in order to get tested. And if you are asymptomatic, and if you have not been in contact with anyone that has been tested positive, in different states it's difficult to get.

But I do think that there are things that we can do to improve our capabilities of containing the spread of this virus and flattening the infection curve again. And that is frequent testing, free testing of asymptomatic folks, contact tracing, and making sure that folks understand that we are not asking people to be completely shut in in lock-down inside their homes during the holiday season.

All we are asking for is for people to wear a mask when they go outside, to be conscientious about their health, and in case you're experiencing any different symptoms, for them to go into the CDC website and making sure that they check the boxes to see if they have potential COVID symptoms or not.


LEO NISSOLA: And for them to not gather with people that are outside their household, especially during this winter season. As you mentioned, we are expecting the COVID cases to increase. And with this new strain, the COVID cases are going to increase much faster.

KRISTIN MYERS: So to that point, as the last question for you here, Dr.-- and I hate to inject this kind of bit of bad news right as we end this-- but how bad are you anticipating this is going to get in January after the holidays and maybe even into February, which is the coldest month, at least for us here in New York? How bad do you think it's going to get?

LEO NISSOLA: So I think it depends, again, on the states. States that are still allowing people to go into indoor dining, people to go into the gym or bars, like you've seen in Florida-- you would expect to see cases exponentially growing and infections to increase.

And then again, our health care system is already at the breaking point. In California, there are many ICUs that are at capacity. So I am concerned that winter season coming up, the cases are going to increase. And we're going to be sharing a lot of bad news unless we take this into a federal level of COVID restrictions and making sure people understand how serious this is.

I still get a lot of emails and questions on my DMs on Twitter or Instagram from folks that are still not taking it seriously. And I'm very surprised.

KRISTIN MYERS: All right. Well, hopefully some folks out there, at least watching our conversation, will start to take this a little bit more seriously, especially with that new strain out there. Immunotherapy scientist Dr. Leo Nissola, thanks so much for joining us today.

LEO NISSOLA: Thank you for having me. Happy holidays.

KRISTIN MYERS: Happy holidays to you as well.