Omicron COVID variant ‘cause for concern, not panic,’ President Joe Biden says, urging Americans to get vaccines and booster shots
President Joe Biden on Monday described the new omicron COVID-19 variant as a “cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” as he pledged to “spare no effort” in the federal government’s fight against the latest strain and called on more Americans to protect themselves with vaccines and booster shots.
“Sooner or later we’re going to see cases of this new variant in the United States. We’re going to have to face it,” Biden told reporters in the White House, just hours after Canadian officials reported the first case detected in North America. Biden added that his administration would continue research into the variant’s severity and ability to spread, and that his moves would be guided by science and speed, but “not chaos and confusion.”
“We have the best vaccines in the world, the best medicines, and the best scientists,” he said, noting his team was talking with vaccine makers Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson on potential updates to vaccines and boosters to better combat omicron. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, says the existing vaccines already provide “some protection” against the new variant — protection that is strengthened by a booster shot.
Cases tied to the new variant have been reported in the United Kingdom, Germany, Hong Kong, Australia and the Netherlands after the World Health Organization on Friday designated omicron a “variant of concern.” U.S. officials over the weekend sounded alarms that the variant features several troublesome mutations that may suggest rapid transmission, and WHO said early evidence shows signs of higher chances of reinfection among those who’ve previously tested positive for COVID-19.
Several nations, including the United States, have implemented travel restrictions for a handful of countries in southern Africa where omicron was first detected. Biden defended the travel restrictions that went into effect Monday, saying they “give us time” to ramp up vaccination and booster efforts while studying the variant’s impacts.
Biden said the U.S. had already successfully brought down new case totals after a surge sparked by the highly contagious delta variant this year. News of the omicron variant, however, comes as the U.S. has faced COVID-19 case increases in the Upper Midwest, New England and elsewhere. Massachusetts has seen new cases jump by more than 80% over the last two weeks, and hospitalizations have continued to increase over the last month.
“The best protection against this new variant, or any variants out there … is getting fully vaccinated and getting a booster shot,” Biden said. “If you are vaccinated but still worried about the new variant, get your booster. If you aren’t vaccinated, go get that first shot.”
He also asked Americans to “please wear your mask when you’re indoors in public settings.”
In the coming days, the White House will release “a detailed strategy” to fight COVID-19 through the winter — “not with shutdowns and lockdowns,” Biden said, but with “widespread” vaccination, boosters, testing and more.
“We’re throwing everything we can at this virus,” he said. “That’s how we reopened our country. We moved forward in the face of the delta variant, and we move forward in the face of the omicron variant as well.”
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‘Covid’s not done with us’: Nations rush to contain Omicron
Japan announced it would bar entry of all foreign visitors, joining Israel in doing so just days after the variant was identified by researchers in South Africa. Morocco banned all incoming flights. Other countries, including the US and European Union members, have moved to prohibit travelers arriving from southern Africa.
Travelers infected with the new version have turned up in a widening circle of countries over the past few days, including now Spain, and cases in Portugal and Scotland have raised fears that the variant may already be spreading locally.
“Many of us might think we are done with Covid-19. It’s not done with us,” warned Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization.
Days after the variant sent a shudder through the financial world nearly two years into the pandemic that has killed over 5 million people, markets had mixed reactions Monday, with European stocks and oil prices rebounding and Wall Street opening higher, while Asian markets fell further.
The infections showed the difficulty in keeping the virus in check in a globalized world of jet travel and open borders. Yet, many countries tried to do just that, even against the urging of the WHO, which noted that border closings often have limited effect and can wreak havoc on lives and livelihoods.
Some argued that such restrictions could provide valuable time to analyze the new variant. Little is known about it, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness or more able to evade vaccines.
While the initial global response to Covid-19 was criticized as slow and haphazard, the reaction to the new variant came quickly.
“This time the world showed it is learning,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, singling out South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for praise. “South Africa’s analytic work and transparency and sharing its results was indispensable in allowing a swift global response. It no doubt saved many lives.”
The WHO has praised Botswana as well as South Africa for quickly alerting the world to the presence of the new variant, and many have warned that the countries should not be punished for their speed.
But that did not hold von der Leyen back from successfully pushing the 27-nation EU to agree on a ban on flights from seven southern African nations over the weekend, similar to measures many other countries have taken. On Monday, EU members Spain and Poland followed through by announcing travel and quarantine restrictions.
Cases had already been reported in EU nations Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands before Portuguese authorities identified 13 omicron infections among members of the Belenenses professional soccer team. Authorities reported one member had recently traveled to South Africa. A game over the weekend had be abandoned at halftime for lack of players.
Spain also reported its first confirmed case of the variant. It was detected in a traveler who returned Sunday from South Africa after making a stopover in Amsterdam, one of Madrid’s major public hospitals tweeted.
Quarantining also became an issue when Dutch military police had to arrest a husband and wife who left a hotel where they were being held after testing positive and boarded a plane bound for Spain.
“Quarantine is not obligatory, but we assume people will act responsibly,” spokeswoman Petra Faber said.
And after Scotland reported its first six cases, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned that “there might already be some community transmission of this variant.”
Taking no chances, Japan, which has yet to detect any omicron cases, reimposed border controls that it had eased earlier this month.
“We are taking the step as an emergency precaution to prevent a worst-case scenario in Japan,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said. The new measures begin Tuesday.
Israel likewise decided to bar entry to foreigners, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday.
Despite the global worry, scientists cautioned that it is still unclear whether omicron is more alarming than other versions.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health, said no data as yet suggests the variant causes more serious illness.
So far, doctors in South Africa are reporting patients are suffering mostly mild symptoms, but they warn that it is still early. Also, most of the new cases are in people in their 20s and 30s, who generally do not get as sick from Covid-19 as older patients.
“We’ve seen a sharp increase in cases for the past 10 days. So far they have mostly been very mild cases, with patients having flu-like symptoms: dry coughs, fever, night sweats, a lot of body pains,” said Dr. Unben Pillay, a general practitioner in Gauteng province, where 81% of the new cases have been reported.
The variant has provided further proof of what experts have been long been saying: that no continent will be safe until the whole globe has been sufficiently vaccinated. The more the virus is allowed to spread, the more opportunities it has to mutate.
“The emergence of the omicron variant has fulfilled, in a precise way, the predictions of the scientists who warned that the elevated transmission of the virus in areas with limited access to vaccine would speed its evolution,” said Dr. Richard Hatchett, head of CEPI, one of the founders of the U.N.-backed global vaccine sharing initiative COVAX.
In some parts of the world, authorities are moving in the opposite direction.
In Malaysia, officials went ahead with the partial reopening of a bridge connecting it to Singapore. And New Zealand announced it will press ahead with plans to reopen internally after months of shutdown, though it is also restricting travel from nine southern African nations.
“We’ve come through the past two years of Covid in better shape than nearly anywhere in the world,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, pointing to low death rates, a growing economy and high vaccination rates.
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