President Biden said Monday the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant should be “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic” as he urged people to get their vaccinations and boosters to protect themselves.
“We have the best vaccine in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists, and we’re learning more every single day. And we’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion,” he said at a White House news conference.
The Omicron variant, first reported by scientists in southern Africa on Thursday, has sent chills around the world because its numerous mutations raise the specter that it might be more transmissible, might cause more severe disease, and might evade the protection provided by vaccines or prior infection. The variant has been reported in at least a half-dozen countries, including the Netherlands, Britain, Israel, Belgium, and Australia. A number of countries, including the United States, have imposed travel restrictions on South Africa and other countries in the region. Japan, Israel, and Morocco have banned foreign visitors entirely.
Biden said officials believe that the current vaccines “will continue to provide a degree of protection” against severe COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
As additional protection, he said, “Please wear your mask when you’re indoors, in public settings around other people. It protects you, it protects those around you.”
He said he did not anticipate the need for lockdowns or additional travel restrictions. “If people are vaccinated and wear their mask, there’s no need for lockdown,” he said.
The White House is working with the makers of the three vaccines administered in the United States in the “hopefully unlikely” event new vaccines or boosters need to be administered to protect against the variant, he said.
“We’re throwing everything we have at this virus, tracking it from every angle,” he said. “I’m sparing no effort. I’m removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe.”
The makers of the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines say they will test how well their vaccines work against Omicron and will develop a booster targeting the strain, if necessary.
Dr. Dan Barouch, head of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, which helped to develop the J&J vaccine, said his lab is starting to synthesize the heavily mutated spike protein of the new variant using the genetic sequence that was posted online on Thanksgiving by South African scientists. But Barouch said it will be a few weeks before his lab can run tests to determine if the three vaccines cleared in the United States work against Omicron.
In his news conference, Biden defended the imposition of travel restrictions on countries in southern Africa, saying the idea was not to prevent the virus from arriving in the United States but to buy time to prepare for it.
Biden said that on Thursday he would announce a detailed strategy on how to fight COVID-19 this winter. He said it would not involve shutdowns or lockdowns but “more widespread vaccination, boosters, testing, and more.”
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said Monday the best protection against Omicron for residents is to get vaccinated and get a booster shot if they’re eligible.
He urged patience as researchers learn more about the variant. “I think people need to recognize and understand that people are chasing this pretty hard. You’ve got folks all over the globe who are chasing data and information, and it’ll probably take a few days to figure out what we don’t know,” Baker said during an appearance on GBH’s “Boston Public Radio” show.
Baker told reporters Sunday the federal government, state governments, and probably municipal governments had been communicating all weekend. “I expect that will continue. The back and forth has been pretty constant since this issue was first raised,” he said.
Earlier Monday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, sounded similar notes to Biden on the Omicron threat.
“We should not be freaking out. We should be doing the things we know work,” Fauci, Biden’s top medical adviser on the pandemic, said on “CBS This Morning.”
Fauci said the “things we know work” included getting vaccinated or getting a booster shot of the vaccines that have proven effective against a virus that has killed about 777,000 Americans and more than 5.2 million people around the world.
Also Monday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said that in reaction to the emergence of Omicron, the agency was strengthening its booster recommendations.
Previously, the agency had said that, in the case of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, all people 50 and over and people 18 and over who lived in long-term care settings “should” get a booster, while others age 18 to 50 “may” get a booster.
The agency now says it’s simple: Everyone age 18 and over “should” get a booster. Those who got the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine should get a booster after six months. People 18 and over who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine were already advised to get a booster after two months.
Walensky also encouraged people to get tested if they are sick and to follow prevention strategies such as wearing a mask, staying 6 feet apart from others, and hand-washing.
Fauci credited scientists in southern Africa for identifying the Omicron variant and for sharing their findings with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help the US effort against COVID-19.
What scientists know so far about Omicron is that it has been shown to have concerning mutations suggesting it could be highly transmissible. But it could take several weeks to fully understand the level of danger it poses, Fauci said.
“It appears to be spreading very readily,’’ he said. “The things that we don’t know right now is whether the people who do get infected have a severe form of disease.”
The World Health Organization on Sunday warned that the “likelihood of potential further spread of Omicron at the global level is high.”
The WHO said in a technical brief to member countries that “there could be future surges of COVID‐19, which could have severe consequences.”
The WHO stressed the need for countries to accelerate vaccinations as rapidly as possible, particularly for vulnerable populations and for those who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated. It also called on health authorities to strengthen surveillance and field investigations, including community testing, to better determine Omicron’s characteristics.
“The most effective steps individuals can take to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus is to keep a physical distance of at least 1 meter from others; wear a well-fitting mask; open windows to improve ventilation; avoid poorly ventilated or crowded spaces; keep hands clean; cough or sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue; and get vaccinated when it’s their turn,” the agency said.
“There are still considerable uncertainties,’’ the WHO said.
Virologists emphasized that the biggest takeaway from Omicron’s development so far is that vaccine inequity threatens the entire globe by allowing the disease to spread among unvaccinated populations. Africa is the least vaccinated continent in the world with just 10 percent of the population vaccinated and doses concentrated in wealthy countries like Morocco and South Africa.
Paul Duprex, a molecular virologist at the helm of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Vaccine Research, said that it is not hard to imagine a scenario in the near future where Massachusetts residents are rolling up their sleeve for an Omicron-specific booster, all while people in rural Botswana remain without access to even their first dose.
“This pandemic started as a global crisis, and it will be resolved as a global phenomenon as well,” explained Rachael Piltch-Loeb, a fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “The reality is that the more cases of COVID, the more opportunity for the virus to mutate.”
John R. Ellement can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe. Martin Finucane can be reached at email@example.com. Hanna Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @hannaskrueger.