The White House said on Saturday that U.S. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has been briefed on the latest update on Omicron COVID-19 variant.
“The President has been briefed on the latest on Omicron. At the same time, senior health officials and the COVID response team have been monitoring the latest updates on Omicron and in regular touch with health officials around the world,” the White House said in a brief statement.
The Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Antony Fauci, said on Saturday that he “would not be surprised” Omicron has already arrived in the United States although it has not been detected in the U.S. yet.
“We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you’re already having travel-related cases that they’ve noted in Israel and Belgium and other places, when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over,” Fauci said during an interview on the “Today” show on Saturday.
The Chief Executive Officer of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, Dr. Seth Berkley, asserted on Saturday that new variants of COVID-19 will continue to emerge “as long as large portions of the world’s population are unvaccinated.”
Dr. Berkley was reacting to the emergence of Omicron, the new variant first identified in Botswana on November 11 and found in several countries around the world, including in South Africa where it is spreading rapidly in Gauteng province, a predominantly urban area containing the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, and may be present in other provinces. Omicron has worried scientists and politicians and led to panic, including travel restrictions.
The United States, the European Union and several other countries announced travel restrictions on several southern African nations where the variant has been identified.
In his brief statement sent to Today News Africa on Saturday, Dr. Berkley argued that investment should be scaled up to vaccinate more people in the world to end the current pandemic.
“While we still need to know more about Omicron, we do know that as long as large portions of the world’s population are unvaccinated, variants will continue to appear, and the pandemic will continue to be prolonged,” he said. “We will only prevent variants from emerging if we are able to protect all of the world’s population, not just the wealthy parts. The world needs to work together to ensure equitable access to vaccines, now.”
He added, “This means manufacturers and donors providing the visibility for countries to roll out the largest national immunization programmes in their history, and it means recipient countries using all resources available to get safe and effective vaccines to those that need them. No-one is safe until everyone is safe.”
Linda Geddes, a writer at Gavi explains in an opinion piece that Omicron “contains a high number of mutations within its spike protein, some of which may help the virus to evade vaccine-induced immune protection.”
“Although the full implications of the discovery are currently unclear, scientists have emphasised the need for continued surveillance, and stressed that protective measures such as social distancing, mask-wearing and vaccination (where available) will help to limit its spread,” Geddes writes.
Geddes adds, “The variant, named B.1.1.529, was first detected in Botswana on 11 November, although other cases have since been identified in South Africa and in a patient who travelled to Hong Kong from South Africa. In a statement released on 25 November, South Africa’s Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said that 22 positive cases had been identified so far, with further genome sequencing currently taking place that might identify others.
“According to Prof Tulio de Oliveira, Director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform at South Africa’s University of KwaZulu-Natal, there are early signs from diagnostic laboratories that the new variant has rapidly increased in Gauteng province, a predominantly urban area containing the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, and may be present in other provinces.”