Biden Calls Omicron a ‘Cause for Concern, Not a Cause for Panic’

The variant has yet to be detected in the United States and crucial questions about the variant itself remain.,

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Biden calls Omicron a ’cause for concern, not a cause for panic.’

President Biden delivered remarks on the Omicron variant at the White House on Monday.Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

Nov. 29, 2021Updated 1:12 p.m. ET

President Biden sought to reassure the nation on Monday about the worrisome new Omicron variant of the coronavirus as crucial questions about it remain, telling Americans that the variant is “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic” and that his administration is already working with vaccine manufacturers to modify vaccines and booster shots, should that prove necessary.

“We’re throwing everything we have at this virus, tracking it from every angle,” the president said in an appearance at the White House, adding, “I’m sparing no effort, removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe.”

The president is expected to visit the National Institutes of Health on Thursday, and said he will outline “a strategy for how we are going to fight Covid this winter, not with shutdowns or with lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more.” The variant has yet to be detected in the United States.

Mr. Biden has already restricted travel from eight nations, including South Africa, from coming to the United States, a move that experts said would buy the United States time in determining how to respond. But it will likely be a week, possibly two weeks, before experts know more about the new variant. It has mutations that scientists fear could make it more infectious and less susceptible to vaccines — though evidence to support those fears has yet to be established.

Despite significant questions about the variant itself — including whether it causes only mild or severe disease — countries around the world have rushed to defend against its spread, with a cascade of border closures and travel restrictions that recalled the earliest days of the pandemic.

Mr. Biden was elected on a promise to bring the pandemic under control — a task that is proving easier said than done. Viruses are dedicated to ensuring their own survival, and that is especially true of the virus that causes Covid-19. Just as Mr. Biden was about to declare “independence from the virus” on the July 4 holiday, the Delta variant swept across the United States, causing another wave of hospitalizations and deaths.

Now there is Omicron, discovered in southern Africa and designated by the World Health Organization on Friday as a “variant of concern,” popping up around the globe just as the holiday travel season gets underway.

Mr. Biden is trying to project an image of calm, and to keep the country from panicking, while also ensuring that Americans remain vigilant by getting vaccinated and taking other steps to prevent the spread of the virus, including masking and social distancing. He was joined at the White House by Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, who said that current P.C.R. tests are able to detect the new variant.

The emergence of the new variant is also stepping up pressure on Mr. Biden and his administration to do more to share vaccines with the rest of the world.

South Africa, whose scientists detected the variant, has fully vaccinated only 24 percent of its population, according to data from the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford. It has a better vaccination rate than most countries on the continent, but has asked vaccine makers to stop sending doses — it is having trouble getting shots into arms, in part because of distribution bottlenecks and in part because many people are hesitant to take it.

Elsewhere in Africa, however, the vaccination rate is much lower, and in some countries, even health care workers have had trouble getting their shots. The W.H.O. reported last week that just 27 percent of health workers in Africa have been fully vaccinated.

Understand the Omicron Variant

Scientists are racing to learn more about the Covid variant. Here‘s the latest.

What to Know: It’s unclear how effective vaccines will be against Omicron, and experts say it’s too early to tell if the variant causes only mild illness.Do Travel Bans Work?: As the Omicron variant circles the globe, some experts say travel bans may do more harm than good.Tracking the Variants: Here’s where Omicron has been detected.How Omicron Got Its Name: The W.H.O. began naming the variants after Greek letters to avoid public confusion and stigma.

The Biden administration has pledged to donate more than 1 billion doses of vaccine to other nations, and so far 275 million doses have been shipped to 110 countries. The president said, as he has in the past, that the United States has donated more doses than any other nation. He implored other foreign leaders to increase their donations.

“Now we need the rest of the world to step as well,” he said.

But activists and some global health experts say the administration needed to move more faster, arguing that vaccine inequities are the reason for the emergence of the variant.

“This is precisely what experts have been predicting was going to happen — that the extraordinary inequities and gaps between low income countries and high income countries creates this massive vulnerability, and it’s going to continue to generate these dangerous variants,” said J. Stephen Morrison, a global health expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “That point is glaringly obvious and it’s painful.”

Mr. Biden’s top health advisers, including Dr. Fauci, spent much of the holiday weekend consulting with their South African counterparts.

With much still unknown about the new variant, Dr. Fauci told the president that it would take approximately two more weeks to learn more about its transmissibility and severity, the White House said, but that “he continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases” of Covid

“I know, America, you’re really tired about hearing those things, but the virus is not tired of us,” Dr. Francis Collins, the N.I.H. director, said on Sunday. “And it’s shape-shifting itself.”

Alexandra E. Petri contributed reporting.

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