Nov. 29, 2021 -- The new Omicron coronavirus variant, which has been detected in several countries in recent days, will spread widely across the world and inevitably reach the U.S., Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Monday.
“Obviously, we’re on high alert,” he said on Good Morning America.
“It’s inevitable that, sooner or later, it’s going to spread widely because it has at least the molecular characteristics of being highly transmissible,” he said. “Even though there are a lot of things about it that we do not know but will be able to ascertain in the next week or two.”
Despite the unknowns, Fauci said, vaccinated people seem to be faring better against the new variant than unvaccinated people. Those who have received booster doses appear to be doing even better.
“I would strongly suggest you get boosted now and not wait for the next iteration of [the vaccine], which we may not even need,” he said. “The pharmaceutical companies are preparing to make a specific booster for [the Omicron variant], but we may not need that.”
As of Monday morning, 12 countries had reported 165 cases of the Omicron variant to GISAID, a global database for the genomic sequencing of viruses. South Africa, which first detected the variant and reported it to the WHO, has found 114 cases, followed by 19 in Botswana, 12 in the Netherlands, and five in Australia. Four or fewer cases have also been reported in the U.K., Belgium, China, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, and Italy.
On Sunday, Canada became the first country in North America to detect the Omicron variant, with two cases confirmed in Ontario.
On Monday, Portugal confirmed 13 cases of the variant among a Lisbon-based soccer club, including one player who had recently traveled to southern Africa, according to ABC News.
President Joe Biden will provide an update on the administration’s response to the Omicron variant on Monday, according to The Hill. Biden met with Fauci and members of the White House COVID-19 Response Team on Sunday to discuss the new variant and the latest information from the WHO, which labeled Omicron a “variant of concern.”
During the meeting, Fauci told Biden that it will take “approximately 2 more weeks” to learn more about the Omicron variant, The Hill reported, including details about how it spreads, how severe it can be, and how well it can evade vaccines.
Fauci emphasized that people should get vaccinated against COVID-19, noting that he believes the shots are “likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID.” He also urged vaccinated people to get booster shots “as soon as possible” to “provide the strongest available protection from COVID.”
A group of senior health officials in the Biden administration had a call with South African scientists on Sunday to review the latest information about the Omicron variant and determine next steps, according to The Washington Post.
The administration will focus on booster shots as a key way to protect people against the new variant as scientists learn more, the newspaper reported. The scientists in South Africa said they expect more breakthrough cases in people who are fully vaccinated, though they aren’t yet sure whether the variant causes severe disease.
Ongoing Travel Restrictions
On Monday, the U.S. started restricting travel for people from eight countries: Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. The European Commission, Canada, and the U.K. have also barred travelers from countries in southern Africa.
Some countries have put stricter travel bans in place by barring all foreign travelers, according to The New York Times. Also on Monday, Japan joined Israel and Morocco in closing borders to everyone in an effort to prevent the Omicron variant from spreading.
Australia also announced that it would delay its plan to reopen borders to international students, skilled migrants, and travelers from Japan and South Korea, the newspaper reported. Health officials will use the 2-week delay to study whether the Omicron variant is more contagious than the Delta variant.
Singapore and Malaysia proceeded with plans to reopen their land borders on Monday, while South Korea announced that it would delay a loosening of social distancing restrictions, the newspaper reported.
Studying Vaccine Efficacy
During the next 2 weeks, vaccine scientists will be gathering data on the new variant to determine how contagious it is and whether the current vaccines will protect against it, according to The New York Times.
The Omicron variant already makes up most of the 2,300 new daily cases in South Africa’s Gauteng province, the newspaper reported. New infections have more than tripled across the country in the past week, and test positivity has increased from 2% to 9%.
The variant has a “Frankenstein mix” of mutations that could make it more transmissible and able to evade immunity, both to vaccination and natural infection, the newspaper reported. Doctors in South Africa have also reported an increase in reinfections in those who already had COVID-19 and recovered. Omicron has about 50 mutations, including more than 30 on the spike protein that allows the virus to invade human cells.
“Based on lots of work people have done on other variants and other mutations, we can be pretty confident these mutations are going to cause an appreciable drop in antibody neutralization,” Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, told the Times.
Some of the mutations have been seen before, but some are unique to Omicron. The National Institute for Communicable Diseases in South Africa is testing blood from fully immunized people against a synthetic version of the variant, and results may be available in about 2 weeks.
Another team at the Africa Health Research Institute is growing live Omicron strains to test the variant in blood samples of fully immunized people and those who were infected before, the newspaper reported. Those results may take longer but will provide a better picture of real-world vaccine efficacy.
Based on the results, vaccine makers may be able to tweak their shots to help. Pfizer and Moderna began testing their vaccines against Omicron last week and announced they could adapt their current vaccines within 6 to 8 weeks and ship the first batches within 100 days.
Reporting Mild Symptoms So Far
A South African doctor, who was one of the first to suspect that a different coronavirus strain was circulating, said Sunday that symptoms seem mild so far, according to Reuters.
On Nov. 18, Angelique Coetzee, MD, noticed that seven patients at her clinic had symptoms that were different from those of the Delta variant: extreme fatigue, body aches, and a headache. They tested positive for COVID-19, and she reported the results to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
Coetzee, who is also chair of the South African Medical Association and a member of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Vaccines, said patients haven’t reported a loss of smell or taste or a major drop in oxygen levels. Most of her patients with the Omicron variant are under age 40, and about half weren’t vaccinated.
“Most of them are seeing very, very mild symptoms, and none of them so far have admitted patients to [the hospital],” she told Reuters. “We have been able to treat these patients conservatively at home.”