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Biden faces uncertain threat with Omicron variant as evolving pandemic tests nation’s patience

President Biden fixes his face mask Monday at a White House meeting
President Biden adjusts his face mask on Monday as he speaks during a White House meeting with business leaders about the holiday shopping season.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

President Biden is racing to show the country that his administration is prepared for the Omicron variant as the World Health Organization warned there’s a “very high” risk of new global outbreaks, a possibility that could prove demoralizing to Americans weary of a pandemic that began nearly two years ago.

“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” Biden said from the White House after holding a meeting with public health advisors Monday.

Much about Omicron, which was first identified in South Africa last week, remains unclear. Some scientists fear it could prove highly contagious or evade protection from vaccines that have already been developed, but administration officials said it could take two weeks to develop clearer answers to those questions. No evidence has emerged that Omicron’s symptoms are different or more severe than previous variants.

The uncertainty surrounding the variant has left Biden in a delicate situation where he must demonstrate that he’s taking the potential threat seriously while tamping down grim speculation before scientists assemble a more complete picture.

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The recent discovery of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus has upended the outlook for a pandemic that was expected to get worse over the winter.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mentioned the emergence of the Omicron variant when updating its guidance on booster shots on Monday. Instead of simply making boosters available to all adults, the agency said another dose was recommended to increase protection against the coronavirus.

Biden said that he’s “sparing no effort and removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe,” adding that 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.” The president said he had 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 expected 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.”

Omicron’s impact on the COVID-19 pandemic will depend on a variety of factors that will take days to weeks for scientists to untangle.

The swiftness of Biden’s public response to Omicron — which he mispronounced as “Omnicron” several times — reflects a bitter understanding of how variants can alter the course of the pandemic. The highly contagious Delta variant, which was first identified in India, ripped through unvaccinated communities in the U.S. this year, causing a surge in deaths at a time when many Americans had expected the threat to be subsiding.

Dr. Howard Koh, a Harvard University professor who served as assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services under President Obama, described it as a “public health purgatory.”

Now Omicron is crowding Biden’s schedule. His meeting with public health officials on Monday was his second in two days, and on Thursday he’s scheduled 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.”

Adalja said officials have struggled to calibrate their communications about COVID-19, “something that has woefully been deficient for the last two years.”

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 toward countries that were adept at identifying and alerting the world to this variant.”

A man walks through a deserted part of an airport in Johannesburg on Monday.
A man walks through a deserted part of an airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Monday.
(Jerome Delay / Associated Press)

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.”

Omicron is a reminder of the danger of uncontrolled spread in developing countries with low vaccination rates, scenarios that can allow the virus to mutate into new variants. Biden reiterated his commitment to sharing vaccines with the rest of the world, and he’s promised more than 1 billion doses by next fall. He emphasized that none of the donations would reduce the availability of shots for Americans.

Biden said the travel ban would buy the U.S. some time to keep distributing vaccines and encouraging people to get their shots. Many Republican lawmakers have fought vaccine requirements, and an estimated 47 million American adults have still not received a single dose of the vaccine despite its wide availability.

While jabs and boosters are offered in the U.S. and much of Europe, vaccination rates remain low in southern Africa, where the Omicron variant was first detected.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s top medical advisor, 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 whether 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.

“This isn’t the first variant and it won’t be the last,” said Amanda McClelland, senior vice president of Prevent Epidemics and Resolve to Save Lives at Vital Strategies, a New York City-based public health nonprofit.

Although the Delta variant has proved damaging, others such as Gamma and Beta were labeled “variants of concern” by the World Health Organization but have not become household names.

Times staff writers Erin Logan and Laura King contributed to this report.


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