President Biden is rushing to show the country that his administration is ready for the Omicron option, although scientists have yet to determine how dangerous it can be, saying he “spares no effort and removes every obstacle to keep the American people safe.”
“This option is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” he said from the White House.
Much about Omicron, which was first discovered in South Africa last week, remains unclear. While some scientists fear it could be highly contagious or elude protection from already developed vaccines, public health officials said it could take two weeks to come up with clearer answers to these questions.
Biden said his administration is already working with pharmaceutical companies to create updated vaccines, if needed. However, he stressed that “we do not yet believe that additional measures will be required,” adding that he has no plans to introduce new restrictions on travel or business.
Cases of Omicron have already been detected in several countries, including the UK and Canada, and Biden said he expects it to reach the United States as well.
“Sooner or later we will see cases of this new option here,” he said. “We will have to face this new threat just as we faced the previous ones.”
Biden’s speed of public response to Omicron, which he mispronounced Omicron on several occasions, reflects the potential danger the option poses to the country and his administration, which is already struggling to end a protracted pandemic.
The President received a second briefing from his COVID-19 team in two days before speaking publicly on Monday. Later this week, he is expected to visit the National Institutes of Health, which is headquartered near Washington.
“The challenge is to convey uncertainty about unanswered questions without causing panic among policymakers,” said Dr. Amesh Adala, senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “This is a very subtle and complex message.”
He criticized the administration for announcing a ban on the entry of foreign tourists from South Africa and other countries in the region, describing the policy as “porous, ineffective and punitive towards countries that know how to define and warn the world about this option.”
In his speech, Biden praised South Africa for quickly communicating the new version, saying that “this transparency should be encouraged and welcomed because it enhances our ability to respond to any new threats.”
He said the travel ban would give the US time to continue distributing vaccines and encouraging people to get vaccinated.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, told ABC News that he expects vaccines and booster doses available to all adults to be effective against Omicron.
“We don’t know exactly what is going on with this option, but I am guessing, and I think it’s a reasonable guess, that after getting vaccinated and raising your level [of antibodies] goes up, you will have a certain level of protection, at least from serious illnesses, ”he said.
Fauci said people considering getting vaccinated should do so rather than wait for pharmaceutical companies to release new versions of their vaccines to work with Omicron, and stressed that it is unclear if changes to vaccines will be needed at all.
Pfizer and Moderna, the leading US manufacturers of two-dose vaccines, said modified vaccines could be developed in the coming months.
Virus mutations are normal. Omicron is the latest in a series of options identified during the pandemic, some of which have proven to be minor. The most destructive was Delta, which was originally discovered in India and became the dominant version of the coronavirus as it is highly contagious.
Other options, such as gamma and beta, have been called “options of concern” by the World Health Organization, but have not become household names.