Faced with the global spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, U.S. health officials said it would likely take two weeks to fully determine the threat level, but pushed coronavirus booster vaccines as a key first step in the battle.
President Biden met with top health advisers on Sunday to chart a strategy as new cases have been confirmed in more global regions including Germany, Italy, Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong.
In Amsterdam, 13 people flying from South Africa, the region where Omicron is believed to have been established, tested positive. In England, authorities imposed stricter masking rules in response to the discovery of two cases.
On Sunday, the Biden administration stressed the need to rigorously adhere to existing COVID-19 safety rules, in particular vaccinations and revaccinations.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s chief infectious disease expert, said a new winter wave of COVID-19 is possible, but vaccinations are the best way to deal with the new surge right now.
“If we have a combination of vaccinating as many people as possible who have not yet been vaccinated, add to this the children who are now eligible for vaccination, 5 to 11, and there are 28 million. … If we do this successfully and very intensively, we can mitigate any growth, ”Fauci told Face the Nation.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reaffirmed this strategy. “Starting today, we are going to step up the revitalization campaign,” he said.
Interest in booster shots has so far been more sluggish than some officials expected. Fauci said this must change.
“We believe that even with options like Omicron, if you get a boost, you get high enough antibody levels that you can get at least some degree, and maybe even a lot of protection from it,” he said.
The variant, first identified in southern Africa amid a surge in infections, has more mutations than scientists have ever seen, including some that could make the virus more resistant to immunity from previous infections or vaccines.
Many questions about the variant remain unanswered, including how quickly it spreads and how effective vaccines against it are. But Fauci said there are concerns about the speed with which the Omicron variant has rolled across South Africa.
“It just exploded in the sense that when you look at South Africa you had a low infection rate and then suddenly there was a big spike,” he said.
“The mutation profile strongly suggests that they will have an advantage in transmissibility and that they may elude immune defenses,” he said, adding that “the critical questions now are whether antibodies are good at blocking it and how serious it is. … disease?”
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said Sunday that the Omicron variant “has many mutations.”
“It really makes you worry that this is a different enough virus – that it might not respond to vaccine protection. But we don’t know that, ”Collins told Fox News Sunday.
“We can definitely see that in South Africa and a few neighboring countries in southern Africa, this seems to be spreading pretty quickly. Thus, it can be concluded that it is especially contagious. We are not aware of its severity. [We’re] trying to collect this data as quickly as possible. “
Collins stressed that there is no evidence yet to indicate that the new variant causes more serious illness than the previous variants of COVID-19.
“I think it’s more contagious when you look at how quickly it spread to several parts of South Africa. Hence, it has a special likelihood of transmission from one person to another. We don’t know if it can compete with Delta. [variant]Collins said on CNN’s State of the Union.
There has been some initial speculation that the new variant usually causes mild disease, based on the many cases studied in South Africa. But some scientists have warned that the idea may be related to the fact that there were early reports of cases in younger, healthier people, and that it is actually too early to know if Omicron is causing more severe illness than earlier variants. …
Starting Monday, the US plans to ban travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries.
Many governments were quick to close their borders, fearing any new development of the virus, which has already killed 5 million people worldwide.
Israel has announced the most stringent measures, closing its borders for two weeks and banning travel to 50 African countries. Morocco has banned all inbound flights for two weeks.
As airports crashed and travelers were faced with flight cancellations, the World Health Organization condemned travel bans that “would weigh heavily on lives and livelihoods,” but did little to stop the option from spreading. Bans like these did little to slow down England’s Delta variant a year ago.
Throughout 2021, WHO urged richer countries not to stockpile vaccines and plague poorer countries from disease protection. Since much of the world is still not vaccinated, the risk of developing new variants is high.
The South African government has reacted angrily to the travel bans, which it says are “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and its ability to discover new variants faster.”
In the United States, where 62 million eligible Americans chose not to get the vaccines available and those who didn’t get boosted may have declined immunity, there was already concern about the vaccine surge.
California officials have joined the Biden administration in promoting the vaccine.
Dr. Thomas J. Aragon, director of the California Department of Public Health, said the variant had not been found in California and that the state has formed a public-private partnership for genomic sequencing for the early detection of the Omicron variant.
Travelers arriving in California who have traveled to South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, or Zimbabwe in the past 14 days should follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to get tested three to five days after arrival. quarantine for seven days, even if the result is negative, and isolation for 10 days if symptoms of COVID-19 develop.
“We are redoubling our vaccination and revaccination efforts to ensure that all Californians have access to safe, effective and free vaccines that can prevent serious illness and death,” Aragon said in a statement.
In Los Angeles County, health officials are urging people to get vaccinated and wear masks in public spaces and at “mega-events” outdoors.
Those on the ground know how difficult it will be to get people to shelter from a possible oncoming wave.
“We all knew something like this was on the way,” said Dr. Rene Ramirez, a physician at the UC San Francisco emergency department on the Fresno campus, which has repeatedly been overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. Ramirez also works as a public health inspector in Calaveras County, where the vaccination rate is barely 50%, compared to 62% statewide.
“For me, the biggest question is why isn’t everyone getting vaccinated to protect others? “As long as there is a high transmission rate, the virus will continue to mutate,” he said. “We need to find a way to switch the conversation from me-me-me to protecting others with masks and vaccinations.”
But he admitted that even he, the doctor, failed to convince a friend he knew from kindergarten to get vaccinated, even when their relative was intubated with COVID-19. He also faced threats from people angry about the demands for masks.
Associated Press and Times contributors Rong-Gong Lin II and Alex Wigglesworth contributed to this report.