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Fauci says U.S. coronavirus infections may be plateauing, vaccines should protect against new variants

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, said on Thursday that based on recent seven-day averages, coronavirus infections may be about to hit a plateau in the United States.

COVID-19 has spiraled out of control for months in the United States even with a massive vaccination campaign underway. The U.S. death toll has exceeded 400,000.

At a White House news briefing, Fauci also said coronavirus vaccines can be modified to account for new variants of the virus, and that while the South Africa variant is concerning, it does not appear to be in the United States.

Another highly-transmissible variant of the virus first discovered in the United Kingdom has spread to at least 20 U.S. states, Fauci said.

Fauci said he expects current vaccines will be effective against the recently discovered virus mutations.

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“Bottom line: we’re paying very close attention to it for our alternative plans if we have to ever modify the vaccine,” he said. “But right now, from the reports we have ... it appears that the vaccines will still be effective against them.”

The United States still has a limited ability to track the presence of new variants in its population, he added.

Fauci said President Joe Biden’s plan to speed COVID-19 inoculations, including setting up community vaccination centers and involving more local pharmacies, improves on the Trump administration’s rollout.

He added that Biden is deploying the Defense Production Act to help vaccine manufacturers, including Pfizer Inc, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna Inc, scale their production.

Most Americans will likely be vaccinated by the middle of this year, Fauci said, though he added he remains concerned about the amount of people who are hesitant to get a vaccine.

Reporting By Jeff Mason and Steve Holland; Editing by Leslie Adler and Bill Berkrot