President Joe Biden on Monday said the new Omicron coronavirus variant is "a cause for concern, not a cause for panic," as federal health officials brace for the first cases of the new variant to be detected in the US.
"Sooner or later we're going to see cases of this new variant here in the United States. We'll have to face this new threat just as we face those who have come before it," Biden said, speaking from the White House.
The President noted scientists and officials are learning more every day about the new variant. He said the new travel restrictions his administration put in place, which went into effect Monday and restricted travel from several countries in Southern Africa, gives the US more time to respond.
Joe Biden says new Omicron variant is 'cause for concern, not a cause for panic'
Biden said on Thursday he would put forward a "detailed strategy outlining how we're going to fight Covid this winter. Not with shutdowns or lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more."
"We have the best vaccine in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists, and we're learning more every single day. And we'll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed -- not chaos and confusion," Biden said.
Officials briefed Biden for approximately 45 minutes Sunday on the new variant and again on Monday morning, with a heavy dose of caution about what's still unknown. Health officials say there are likely far more cases worldwide than is currently known.
"This kind of transparency is to be encouraged and applauded because it increases our ability to respond quickly to any new threats, and that's exactly what we did," Biden said, adding that he does not believe the travel restrictions would make other countries less likely to report new variants.
The President said: "We needed time to give people an opportunity to say get that vaccination now before it, it's going to move around the world. I think it's almost inevitable that there will be at some point that strain here in the United States, but I don't think anyone is going to be reluctant to report."
Biden's team told him it will likely take one to two weeks to know more about the variant, including whether antibodies handle it effectively. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently sequencing coronavirus genomes and working closely with state health officials, two steps that will be critical to figuring out if the variant is already in the US.
Fauci said Sunday that hopefully scientists will be able to make a determination soon on whether the Omicron variant is resistant to current Covid-19 vaccines. It's also too soon to tell whether Omicron causes more severe disease.
If there is a diminution of protection, Fauci and other health officials said getting a Covid-19 vaccine booster shot could help enhance protection, since boosters enlarge the capacity of the body to recognize all kinds of mutations on coronavirus variants.
Vaccine maker Moderna's chief medical officer told CNN that the Omicron variant has at least 50 mutations -- including 30 on the key spike protein, which allows the virus to enter human cells, alone. He added that Omicron has thrown a "new wrench" into the fight against Covid-19, but emphasized that having some vaccination will help fight even a very altered and highly dangerous variant.
Biden announced Friday the US would restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries starting Monday because of the new variant. The Biden administration is now restricting travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. The President was acting on advice from Fauci and the CDC.
The Omicron variant has already been detected on five continents -- North America, Australia, Africa, Europe, Asia -- and the travel restrictions are already generating push back, with South Africa's Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation saying they are "akin to punishing" South Africa.
WHO designates coronavirus variants as either variants of concern -- meaning they look dangerous enough to bear close scrutiny and continual updates -- or as variants of interest, or variants under monitoring. Only five currently meet the definition for variants of concern: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Omicron.
Fauci said earlier on “CBS Mornings” that limiting travel from the countries where omicron was first identified “buys you a couple of weeks because if you can keep things out in force for a couple of weeks you can do a lot of things.”
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.
Biden said his administration was “sparing no effort at removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe,” including working with drug manufacturers on potential new boosters and testing targeted specifically at the new variant.
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.
“If we need to manufacture an omicron-specific variant, it’s going to take some weeks, two to three months is probably what we’re looking at to be able to really begin to manufacture,” Burton told ABC.
Noting that the new variant, like earlier ones, sprang up overseas in areas with lower vaccination rates, Biden said it was both a moral imperative and in America’s self-interest to speed up global vaccinations. He noted that the U.S. has already donated more than 275 million doses — more than the rest of the world combined — and is on pace to deliver more than 1.1 billion doses globally by September 2022.
“Now we need the rest of the world to step up as well,” Biden said. “We can’t let up until the world is vaccinated.”
As the holiday season got underway, Biden tried to reassure shoppers that his administration was working to ease supply chain problems. Businesses are working to overcome lingering effects of COVID-related shutdowns and now issues arising from the strong recovery that has generated more demand than many ports, manufacturers and retailers can handle.
The president spoke Monday with the CEOs of Best Buy, Food Lion, Samsung, Etsy and Walmart, among companies. The corporate leaders reassured Biden.
“While we’re all concerned about the supply chain, we have more inventory than we did a year ago, and we have the inventory that we need to be able to support the business,” said Walmart CEO Doug McMillon. “And we are seeing progress. The port and transit delays are improving.”