Omicron variant is ’cause for concern, not panic’

While acknowledging the fatigue people may have over the oft-repeated request, Biden urged Americans to get fully vaccinated if they are not, or to get their booster if they have not and are over 18 years old.

If an adult was vaccinated by June 1, for example, then they can get their booster shot today, Biden said.

“It will be a few weeks before we know everything we need to know about how strong the new vaccines will be against the variant and Dr. Fauci believes the vaccine will continue to provide some protection against the disease. Please wear your mask indoors or in public settings around other people,” Biden said.

If updated vaccines or booster drugs are needed to respond to omicron, then the U.S. will work with the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to accelerate its deployment and the development of vaccine drugs.  

“We do not yet believe that additional measures will be needed. But so we are prepared, if needed, my team is already working with Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson&Johnson to develop contingency plans for vaccines and boosters,” Biden said. “If needed.”

Omicron has not yet been detected in the U.S.

It was named a “variant of concern” on Nov. 26 by the World Health Organization and on Monday, the health entity warned the global risks omicron poses are “very high.”

The strain has shown up in individuals who travelled to places such as Australia, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Portugal, Denmark, Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Canada, South Africa, and Botswana. Japan and Morocco have banned all foreign visitors as of Monday.

Researchers say omicron has roughly 50 mutations never previously seen, and it has more than two dozen mutations on the spike proteins the respiratory virus uses to sink its hooks into human cells. In comparison, other variants like delta and beta had just 10 and six spike mutations, respectively.

According to The New York Times, some of the omicron spike mutations have also been found in variants that have made COVID-19 more infectious, generally.

But as Biden noted Monday, the verdict remains out for now on whether omicron is as deadly a spreader as viral mutations of the past.

Though it is unclear how effective existing vaccines are against omicron, both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech have been at work in recent days testing their vaccine’s efficacy against the strain.

Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were specifically created to be modified so that if and when variants emerged, their drug could be tailor-made to respond.

Pfizer has reported it can modify its current vaccine in six weeks. Dr. Stephen Hogue, Moderna’s president, said it could update its drug within the same time. Booster shoots may help against the spread of omicron but as most things with the mutation, answers right now are not definitive.

Booster shots have, however, demonstrated that a reintroduction of the vaccine into the body can increase overall antibodies to the virus.

Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institute of Health, said on CNN on Monday that omicron will “probably come to our shores” in the U.S., but he has confidence that inoculations and booster shots will go far to preserve people’s health.

Speaking to reporters gathered at the White House, Biden said the U.S. immediately issued a travel ban against South Africa when the nation’s scientists first raised the alarm because he wanted to give people time to get vaccinated and respond.

A study by the journal Science published last April found that while initial travel bans had some positive effect on slowing the spread of COVID-19, the bans were simply not as effective as hoped when they were not paired with thorough hand-washing, early detection, and isolation of the infected.

Travel bans can lull people into a false sense of security about a virus being contained and can also help explode racial stigmas. The World Health Organization on Sunday issued a statement cautioning against travel bans and underlined that if and when travel restrictions are implemented, they should be “scientifically based” while also rooted in the International Health Regulations recognized by more than 190 nations.

Fauci, who joined Biden during the president’s press conference Monday, said there’s nothing more that the U.S. can do to screen travelers for this variant.

“We already have in place, when people come into the U.S., that they have to be tested before they get on [a plane] and show vaccination documentation. So, even before omicron came in, we had a situation where we could test,” Fauci said. “Fortunately, for us, the PCRs [polymerase chain reaction] tests that we mostly use would pick up this very unusual variant that has a real large constellation of mutations.”

As for new travel restrictions in the U.S., Biden said: “The degree of the spread impacts whether or not there’s a need for any travel restrictions but I don’t anticipate that at this point. We’ll see. We’ll see how this works.”

As for issuing a national lockdown, Biden said it was off the table for the moment.

“If people are vaccinated and wear their masks, there is no need for lockdown,” he said.

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