Omicron Variant a Cause for Concern, Not Panic, Says Biden

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WASHINGTON — The newly discovered Omicron variant of COVID-19 is “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” President Biden said Monday.

“We have the best vaccine in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists, and we’re learning more every single day,” Biden said during a speech in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. “And we’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion.”

The president was responding to reports over the weekend about the new variant, which was first reported by public health officials in South Africa. The World Health Organization has officially named Omicron — also known as B.1.1.529 — as a “variant of concern.”

“It is to their credit the scientific community in South Africa quickly notified the world of the emergence of this new variant,” Biden said. “This kind of transparency is to be encouraged and applauded because it increases our ability to respond quickly to any new threats. And that’s exactly what we did. The very day the World Health Organization identified the new variant, I took immediate steps to restrict travel from countries in southern Africa. But while we [know] that travel restrictions can slow the speed of Omicron, it cannot prevent it. But here’s what it does — it gives us time to take more action.” Specifically, it allows the U.S. “to make sure people understand: you have to get your vaccine; you have to get the shot; you have to get the booster.”

Asked during a question-and-answer session whether other countries will be less likely to report new variants because South Africa was rewarded with a U.S. travel ban after doing so, Biden replied, “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen.”

“Sooner or later we’re going to see cases of this new variant here in the United States,” he predicted. “We will have to face this new threat as we faced those that come before it.” Biden reminded the audience that “a year ago, America was floundering against the first variant of COVID. We beat that variant significantly. And then we got hit by a far more powerful threat — the Delta variant — but we took action and now we’re seeing deaths of Delta come down. We’re going to fight and beat this new variant as well.” The president promised to share information he learned about the new variant “candidly and promptly.”

Biden took the opportunity to once again encourage Americans to get vaccinated. “Most Americans are fully vaccinated, but not yet boosted. If you’re 18 years or over and got fully vaccinated before June 1, go get the booster shot today,” he said. “They’re free and they’re available at 80,000 locations coast to coast. A fully vaccinated, boosted person is the most protected against COVID … And if you are not vaccinated, now’s the time to get vaccinated and take your children to be vaccinated.” He added that the White House medical advisory team, including chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, told him that the current vaccines “will continue to provide a degree of protection against severe disease. And as additional protection, please wear your mask when you’re indoors in public settings around other people. It protects you and protects those around you.”

In response to a question, Biden said he did not plan to reinstate mask mandates in the wake of the new variant. “I encourage everyone to wear a mask when they’re indoors in a crowded circumstance like we are right now, unless you’re eating or speaking at a microphone …. But I don’t anticipate [a mandate] at this point.” He was also asked why his administration had taken lockdowns off the table for now. “If people are vaccinated and wear their mask, there’s no need for a lockdown,” he said.

In the “hopefully unlikely” event that updated vaccines or boosters are required, “we will accelerate their development and deployment with every available tool,” said Biden. “My team is already working with officials at Pfizer and Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans for vaccines or boosters if needed. And I will also direct the FDA, the CDC to use the fastest process available — without cutting any corners for safety — to get such vaccines approved and on the market.”

In addition to getting more Americans vaccinated, “we have to vaccinate the world as well,” Biden said. “And America is leading that effort. We’ve shipped, for free, more vaccines to other countries than all other countries in the world combined — over 275 million vaccines to 110 countries. Now we need the rest of the world to step up.” He emphasized that vaccines donated to other countries “will [never] come at the expense of any American. I will always make sure that our people are protected first,” adding that since variants come to the U.S. from other countries, “we can’t let up until the world is vaccinated. We’re protecting Americans by doing it as well.”

Biden closed his speech by reminding the audience of the progress so far. “Last Christmas, fewer than 1% of American adults were vaccinated,” he said. “This Christmas the number will be over 71%, including more than 86% of seniors. Last Christmas our children were at risk without a vaccine. This Christmas, we have safe and effective vaccines for children ages 5 and older. Last year, a majority of schools were closed; this year, 99% of our schools are open … We’ve moved forward in the face of COVID-19, we have moved forward in the face of the Delta variant, and we move forward now, in the face of the Omicron variant.”

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    Joyce Frieden oversees MedPage Today’s Washington coverage, including stories about Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, healthcare trade associations, and federal agencies. She has 35 years of experience covering health policy. Follow

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