With the holiday season underway and a worrying new coronavirus variant rapidly spreading across the globe, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, sought to assuage the concerns of Americans nationwide Wednesday night by assuring them it is still safe to travel, adding that he would not suggest “anything different” from previous recommendations made.
“We just have a problem that’s identifiable now,” said Fauci, chief medical adviser for President Biden, during a CNN Global Town Hall on the coronavirus. “If you have a vaccinated situation, your family’s vaccinated, enjoy the holidays, indoors with your family in a family setting.”
He noted that with travel comes the “somewhat” increased risk of becoming infected with the virus and as a result, those who plan on traveling should continue to take appropriate measures including wearing a mask, getting vaccinated as soon as possible, and receiving the booster shot when eligible.
Earlier in the day, Fauci announced at the White House that the first confirmed case of the Omicron variant in the United States had been identified in a vaccinated traveler in California who had returned from a trip to South Africa at the end of November. At least 23 other countries — among them the United Kingdom and Italy — have reported Omicron infections from the variant since scientists in South Africa first identified the concerning variant with mutations and promptly shared the development.
Researchers have been scrambling to understand the variant ever since and determine whether it poses more danger than previous mutant versions of the virus, such as the Delta variant, which continues to sicken thousands and led to a spike in cases, including in Massachusetts. Biden will provide an update on his winter plans for staving off the worst of the pandemic on Thursday, including a more urgent campaign for Americans to get booster shots and the extension of a mask mandate for travelers through March, according to reports.
Fauci said not enough information is known yet about the Omicron variant to properly address it, and that the individual diagnosed in California would be “considered a breakthrough infection” so public health experts are unable to make “a broad general statement or an extrapolation for what would go on with unvaccinated people or people who are boosted” based on that single case alone. More data is expected within the next few weeks about the variant, “mostly from our South African colleagues,” he said.
It is also too soon to tell whether people will need to get vaccinated against the coronavirus on a yearly basis, Fauci said, but he stressed that anyone eligible for a booster should get one “as quickly as they possibly can,” rather than wait for a potential variant-specific booster shot to be developed.
“We don’t know what’s going to be required,” he said. “I hope we get a durability of protection from the boost that we won’t have to be chasing all the time against a new variant. But that just remains to be seen.”
Having that extra level of protection is especially important given that the Delta variant remains a “problem” in the country and “we are entering into a much colder season,” where people are more likely to be gathering in congregate settings, Fauci said. Other key measures he noted include getting the approximately “60 million people who are unvaccinated” and eligible children inoculated, along with people “wearing proper masks.”
“The level of antibodies that rise and go up following a boost is much, much higher than the peak level that you get after your second dose of a two-dose vaccine,” he said. “When you get your levels of antibody high enough, you protect against Delta. That’s what we’re hoping we’ll see with the Omicron variant.”
In recent days, executives at Moderna and BioNtech have said they are cautiously optimistic that their coronavirus vaccines, administered with a booster, will provide protection against the Omicron variant. Dr. Stephen Hoge, president of Cambridge-based Moderna, expressed that hope again during the town hall Wednesday, going off the efficacy of the company’s medicine against other variants, including the Gamma variant and Delta variant.
“There is some hope if we get through the Omicron variant, we see good efficacy in the coming weeks and months, that actually the original vaccines that we’ve all been benefiting from actually will hold up really well and might be all we really need in the long run,” he said. “We’ll just need data to tell us.”