President Joe Biden urged Americans on Monday to get vaccinated, including booster shots, as he sought to quell concerns over the newly identified COVID-19 variant omicron, but he stopped short of calling for more restrictions to stop its spread.
Biden noted Monday in a speech from the White House that travel restrictions can slow the spread — they cannot prevent it.
“Sooner or later, we are going to see cases of the omicron variant here in the U.S.,” Biden cautioned. He called it a cause for concern, “not panic.”
“We’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion,” Biden said. “We have more tools today to fight the variant than we ever had before, from vaccines to boosters to vaccines for children.”
He emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated against COVID-19 to protect against all variants, especially as roughly 80 million Americans aged 5 and up haven’t received any shots. He also encouraged all Americans to wear masks in crowded spaces. Biden did not announce any new virus-related restrictions, beyond last week’s move to restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region effective Monday.
“The best protection—I know you’re tired of hearing me say this— the best protection against this new variant or any of the variants out there…is getting fully vaccinated,” Biden said.
Earlier Monday, Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, said while there were still no cases of variant identified in the U.S., he assumes it is already in the country “and we’ll have an answer in the next few days.”
Speaking on NBC’s TODAY show, Jha said the data from South Africa suggests that the variant spreads quickly, but cautioned that at this point “we can only make presumptions about transmissibility” and more careful study is needed to confirm if it’s because of omicron or other factors.
“Careful studies take time,” Jha said. “You have to grow the virus, run the tests, see what’s happening in people. There is no way to go any faster than that.”
Asked whether the omicron variant can evade the existing COVID-19 vaccines or natural antibodies, Jha said the chances are “extremely unlikely.” The question for scientists, he added, is whether the vaccines are a little less effective or a lot less effective in protecting against the variant and they hope to know in the next week or two.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and Biden’s leading COVID-19 adviser, also said Monday that “we really don’t know” how dangerous omicron is compared to earlier strains, calling speculation “premature.”
Officials said the move to limit most travel from the countries where omicron was first identified was meant to buy time for the U.S to learn more about the variant. But Fauci said it would eventually reach the U.S. and could, like the delta variant before it, become the dominant strain, saying omicron “has a transmissibility advantage” over other variants.
The new variant poses the latest test to Biden’s efforts to contain the pandemic, mitigate its impacts on the economy and return a sense of normalcy to the U.S. during the holiday season.
Biden said Monday his administration is already working with vaccine makers “to develop contingency plans” in the “hopefully unlikely” event that updated vaccines or boosters are needed to fight omicron variant.
“We do not yet believe that additional measures will be needed,” the president said.
Pharmaceutical companies are already adjusting their existing COVID-19 vaccines to better attack the omicron variant, but Fauci said Americans should make it a priority to get either their first shots or a booster dose now, rather than waiting for a new formulation.
“I would strongly suggest you get boosted now,” he said.
A new variant, named B.1.1.529, was named a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization and given the name “omicron” from the letter in the Greek alphabet.
He added that depending on what scientists learn about the omicron variant in the coming weeks “we may not need” targeted boosters to contain that strain of the virus.
Any omicron-specific vaccine probably could not begin to be produced for another two or three months, so getting boosters now is a “very important initial line of defense,” Dr. Paul Burton, chief medical officer for the vaccine-maker Moderna, said Monday.
Burton said Moderna and other vaccine companies are testing existing COVID-19 vaccines to determine how effective they are against the omicron variant.
Over the weekend, the list of countries that have spotted the new variant in travelers grew. Portugal detected 13 cases linked to the new variant among members of a single soccer club — only one of whom had recently traveled to South Africa.
On Friday, WHO designated it as a “variant of concern,” its most serious designation of a COVID-19 variant, and called it “omicron” as the latest entry into its Greek alphabet classification system designed to avoid stigmatizing countries of origin and simplify understanding.
The U.N. health agency said it wasn’t clear whether omicron is more transmissible — more easily spread between people — compared to other variants like the highly transmissible delta variant. It said it wasn’t clear if infection with omicron causes more severe disease, even as it cited data from South Africa showing rising rates of hospitalization there — but that could just be because more people are getting infected with COVID-19, not specifically omicron.
So far, the main difference with other variants appears to be that there may be an increased risk of reinfection with omicron — in other words, that people who’ve already had COVID-19 could get reinfected more easily. There is no indication yet the variant causes more severe disease.
The coronavirus mutates as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying genetic changes, often just die out. Scientists monitor COVID-19 sequences for mutations that could make the disease more transmissible or deadly, but they can’t determine that simply by looking at the virus.
The omicron variant appears to have a high number of mutations — about 30 — in the coronavirus’ spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads to people.
To date, delta is by far the most predominant form of COVID-19, accounting for more than 99% of sequences submitted to the world’s biggest public database.