Joe Biden has urged Americans to get COVID-19 jabs amid global alarm over the new Omicron coronavirus variant, but the US president says the strain should be considered a “cause for concern, not a cause for panic”.
In remarks delivered at the White House on Monday, Biden said top United States health officials are consulting with leading vaccine makers and preparing for possible updates to account for Omicron’s mutations.
But he stressed that the country was in a good position to control Omicron’s potential spread without having to resort to lockdowns or more travel bans for now beyond restrictions already imposed on eight Southern African countries.
“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” he said. “If you are vaccinated, but still worried about the new variant, get your booster. If you aren’t vaccinated, get that shot. Go get that first shot.”
Biden added that his chief medical adviser, Dr Anthony Fauci, expects current vaccines to work against the new variant, with boosters enhancing protection. “We’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion,” he said.
The US earlier this month expanded its recommendation for booster jabs to all adults, but an estimated 47 million US adults have not yet been vaccinated, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
A ban on travel into the US from South Africa and seven other African nations came into effect on Monday, as countries around the world have imposed travel restrictions over the past several days amid concerns over Omicron.
“The point of the [travel] restriction is to give us time to get people vaccinated,” Biden said on Monday.
No cases of the Omicron variant have been reported in the US so far, but Fauci has warned the virus is probably already present in the country.
Speaking on ABC’s Good Morning America programme, Fauci said scientists hope to know in the next week or two how well the existing COVID-19 vaccines protect against the variant, and how dangerous it is compared with earlier strains.
“We really don’t know,” Fauci said, calling speculation “premature”.
Dr Angelique Coetzee of the South African Medical Association, who first detected Omicron in South Africa this month, told Al Jazeera on Monday that people infected with the new strain so far appear to have “very mild symptoms”, especially those who were inoculated after August.
The Omicron variant has been detected in more than 10 countries including Canada, Australia, Portugal, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Mozambique.
On Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that the global risk from the spread of Omicron was “very high” and urged 194 member nations to speed the delivery of vaccinations to high-risk groups.
No Omicron-linked deaths had yet been reported, though further research is needed to assess its potential to escape protection against immunity induced by vaccines and previous infections, the WHO added.
“Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,” it said.
The Omicron variant is “highly transmissible” and requires “urgent action”, the Group of Seven (G7) health ministers also said in a joint statement that praised South Africa for detecting the variant while urging an international pathogen surveillance network to be established within the WHO.
The rise of the Omicron variant is seen by some as validating earlier warnings that the unchecked spread of the virus in countries with low access to vaccines would lead to mutations and dangerous new variants.
“The inequity that has characterised the global response has now come home to roost,” Richard Hatchett, chief executive officer of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, told an assembly of health ministers at the WHO in Geneva.