Experts are racing to see if Omicron’s mutations make it more transmissible and potentially vaccine-resistant.
Health officials in the United States are advising Americans not to be complacent and to utilize every tool at their disposal to prepare for the Omicron variant of Covid-19, which the World Health Organization (WHO) has designated as a “variant of concern“.
The WHO said in a technical brief released Monday that the total worldwide risk associated with the newly discovered B.1.1.529 strain of the novel coronavirus “is assessed as very high.”
Experts are now rushing to see if Omicron’s changes make it more transmissible, severe, and perhaps vaccine resistant, but it could be weeks before we find out.
Meanwhile, flight restrictions from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi to the United States went into effect overnight. The Omicron variation was first discovered in South Africa and has since been found in a number of other nations.
Although no cases have been reported in the United States, the variant has been found across the border in Canada, and scientists believe it may soon appear in the United States.
Officials say immunizations and boosters remain the greatest protection available because so much about Omicron is unknown.
According to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)., approximately 59.1% of the US population is completely vaccinated, with 19.1% of those fully vaccinated receiving a booster dose.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told CNN on Sunday that Omicron reinforced the need for vaccination.
“We have to use every kind of tool in our toolbox to keep (Omicron) from getting in a situation that makes this worse,” he said.
“It also means we need to pay attention to those mitigation strategies that people are just really sick of, like wearing masks while indoors with other people who might not be vaccinated and keeping that social distance issue,” he added. “I know, America — you’re really tired of hearing those things. But the virus is not tired of us. And it’s shapeshifting itself.”
On Fox News Sunday, Collins appealed to those who haven’t yet been vaccinated: “If Omicron is one more wake-up call, then let’s wake up. And come on America, you can do this. These vaccines are safe, they’re effective — people have been using them for more than a year, 200 million people plus have gotten injected, these are something you want for yourself, your family, your community.”
Warnings about the renewed threat from the Omicron variant come as Americans have become weary of nearly two years of precautions and are returning from a Thanksgiving break that saw air travel at close to pre-pandemic levels.
Critical two-week timeline
After meeting with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and other members of the Covid team on Sunday, President Joe Biden is likely to offer an update on the US reaction to Covid-19 on Monday, according to the White House.
“Dr. Fauci informed the President that while it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity, and other characteristics of the variant, he continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of Covid,” a readout of their meeting said.
In terms of immediate advice, the White House stated that the Covid team recommends booster shots for all adults who are currently vaccinated.
“This is a clarion call as far as I’m concerned of saying let’s put aside all of these differences that we have, and say, if you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated. If you’re fully vaccinated, get boosted,” Fauci told NBC News on Sunday.
“We’re in pretty good shape,” Fauci said, assuming tests demonstrate that antibodies from people who have been vaccinated can neutralize the Omicron version of the virus.
“If it looks like even at a high titer of antibody it doesn’t, then what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to change and modify what the vaccine is going to be, which you can do pretty easily,” Fauci said.
Moderna’s chief medical officer stated on Sunday that the business hopes to know in a couple of weeks whether the new Omicron version has an impact on the vaccine’s efficacy.
Moderna is working on numerous ways, including one that is particular to the new variety, if the business discovers it needs to pivot and manufacture a new vaccine, according to Burton.
“Our platform, we can move very fast. We think within weeks to maybe two to three months we would be able to have an Omicron-specific vaccine booster available for testing, and then for administration,” he said. “This is going to go at the fastest possible speed, but we have to do careful science now. We don’t want to misstep.”
BioNTech, a German company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the Covid-19 vaccine, is also looking at Omicron’s influence, with results expected in the coming weeks.
Johnson & Johnson is also putting its Omicron vaccination to the test, according to the company.
US travel restrictions go into effect
The variant has also been found in Botswana, Belgium, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Hong Kong since it was initially discovered in South Africa.
Travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi is presently prohibited in the United States. Similar procedures have been implemented in a number of other countries around the world.
As the Biden administration believes the variation will most likely appear in the United States, it has imposed travel restrictions to gain time while health experts investigate Omicron’s possible impact.
The US Travel Association, meanwhile, urged the Biden administration to reconsider the restrictions on Sunday.
“Covid variants are of concern, but closed borders have not prevented their presence in the United States while vaccinations have proven incredibly durable. That is why America’s travel industry is a vocal proponent of everyone getting a vaccine,” the association said in a statement. “With a vaccine and testing requirement in place to enter the US we continue to believe that assessing an individual’s risk and health status is the best way to welcome qualified global travelers into the United States.”
Passengers arriving at Newark International Airport from Johannesburg on a direct flight on Sunday morning described the impact of global travel restrictions.
Kyle Bogert of Hoboken, New Jersey, told CNN that the rest of his family was still stuck in South Africa because their connecting flight through Dubai had been canceled as they were driving to the airport.
“On the news, you hear about all these variants popping up in different locations and you hear about airports getting shut down … it’s kind of in the back of your mind until you’re there and you’re stuck there, or your family is stuck there,” he said.
As per Abc7news, Bogert said passengers on his flight were advised to get tested for Covid-19 “within three to five days,” but noted his exit from his flight was otherwise “normal.”