WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is racing to show the country that his administration is prepared for the omicron variant even though scientists have yet to determine how dangerous it could be, saying that he’s “sparing no effort and removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe.”
“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” he said from the White House.
Much about omicron, which was first identified in South Africa last week, remains unclear. Although some scientist fear it could prove highly contagious or evade protection from vaccines that have already been developed, public health officials said it could take two weeks to develop clearer answers to those questions.
Biden said his administration is already working with pharmaceutical companies to formulate updated vaccines if necessary. However, he emphasized, “we do not yet believe that additional measures will be needed,” adding that he has no plans for new restrictions on travel or businesses.
Omicron cases have already been detected in several countries, including Britain and Canada, and Biden said he expects it to reach the United States as well.
“Sooner or later, we’re going to see cases of this new variant here,” he said. “We’ll have to face this new threat just like we’ve faced those that have come before it.”
The swiftness of Biden’s public response to omicron — which he mispronounced as “omnicron” several times — reflects the potential danger posed by the variant to the country and to his administration, which has already struggled to bring the lingering pandemic to a close.
The president received a briefing from his COVID-19 team, his second in two days, before speaking publicly Monday. Later in the week, he’s expected to visit the National Institutes of Health, headquartered just outside Washington.
“The challenge is in conveying uncertainty in unanswered questions without engendering panic among policymakers,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “That is a very nuanced and difficult message to convey.”
He criticized the administration for announcing a ban on international visitors from South Africa and other nations in the region, describing the policy “as porous, ineffectual and punishing towards countries that were adept at identifying and alerting the world to this variant.”
In his remarks, Biden praised South Africa for quickly reporting the new variant, saying, “This kind of transparency is to be encouraged and applauded, because it increases our ability to respond to any new threats.”
He said the travel ban would buy the U.S. some time to keep distributing vaccines and encouraging people to get their shots.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s top medical adviser, told ABC News that he expects vaccines and booster doses, which are available for all adults, will prove effective against omicron.
“We don’t know exactly what’s going on with this variant, but I would assume, and I think it’s a reasonable assumption, that when you get vaccinated and boosted and your level [of antibodies] goes way up, you’re going to have some level of protection, at least against severe disease,” he said.
Fauci said people considering getting their shots should do so, and not wait for pharmaceutical companies to produce new versions of their vaccines to handle omicron, and he emphasized that it’s not clear if changes to vaccines will even be necessary.
Pfizer and Moderna, the leading producers of two-dose vaccines in the United States, have said modified vaccines could be developed in the coming months.
It’s normal for viruses to mutate. Omicron is the latest in a series of variants that have been identified over the course of the pandemic, some of which have proved insignificant. The most damaging has been delta, which was originally detected in India and has become the dominant version of the coronavirus because it’s highly contagious.
Other variants, like gamma and beta, were labeled “variants of concern” by the World Health Organization but have not become household names.