The latest strain of the coronavirus, known as omicron, will not bring the United States back to square one in the pandemic, President Joe Biden said during an address on Monday in which he urged Americans to get vaccinated and boosted.
Biden and White House public health officials believe the current COVID-19 vaccines available on the market should provide some level of protection against the new virus variant, though it will take up to two weeks to know exactly how much.
“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” Biden said from the White House, noting that the U.S. has more tools to fight the virus than ever before, including vaccines, boosters, antibody treatments and antivirals.
The omicron variant has far more mutations than delta or any other existing COVID-19 variant, and all the uncertainties have caused the scientific community to spring into action. If updated vaccinations or boosters are necessary to respond to omicron, Biden said the administration will accelerate their development.
The White House is already working with Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans for revised vaccines and boosters if needed. Pfizer-BioNTech has said it could produce lab data within two weeks about whether omicron can escape existing vaccine protection, and could have an updated shot ready within 100 days.
The variant was first detected last week by South African epidemiologists. Biden praised the African scientists’ transparency and said their quick identification and notification of the new virus variant likely saved lives. He emphasized that the new travel limitations for some southern African countries are not intended to be punitive and can help buy the U.S. some time to combat the virus by getting more people vaccinated and boosted before the new variant reaches domestic shores.
On Thursday, the White House is set to put forward a detailed strategy about how the country will fight COVID-19 this winter.
Lockdowns are off the table going forward, Biden said. But he encouraged Americans to wear masks in indoor spaces, regardless of state and local mandates, and to get vaccinated as soon as possible. The winter offensive against COVID-19 will also involve an updated testing strategy.
“I expect this not to be the new normal,” Biden said. “I expect the new normal to be that everyone ends up getting vaccinated and booster shots, so we reduce the number of people who aren’t protected to such a low degree that we’re not seeing the spread of these viruses.”
Available PCR tests can pick up the new variant, White House Chief Medical Adviser Anthony Fauci said. So as long as international travelers are screened for COVID-19, the U.S. should be able to monitor if the variant enters the country. Over the weekend, the strain was detected in several nations around the world, as nearby as Canada.
COVID-19 can’t be easily confined within domestic borders. Although nearly 70 percent of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, in many less-developed nations, the vaccination rate is in the single digits. These places are especially vulnerable and likely to lead to new, more deadly mutations.
So far, the U.S. has sent over 275 million vaccine doses to 110 countries. Biden called on the rest of the Western world to step up and send more vaccine doses to the rest of the world.
“We can’t let up until the world is vaccinated. We’re protecting Americans by doing that as well,” Biden said.