Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, said on Friday there was “no indication” the new “Omicron” coronavirus variant discovered in southern Africa had reached the US.
Nonetheless, the Biden administration – along with the UK, Canada and Australia governments – said it would restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in southern Africa, starting on Monday.
In a statement from Nantucket, the island off Massachusetts on which the president was spending the Thanksgiving break, Biden said: “This morning I was briefed by my chief medical adviser, Dr Tony Fauci, and the members of our Covid response team about the Omicron variant which is spreading through South Africa.
“As a precautionary measure until we have more information, I’m ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries. These new restrictions will take effect” on Monday.
The Washington Post quoted an unnamed official as saying the restrictions were being imposed “out of an abundance of caution” . They will apply to travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi but not to US citizens or permanent residents.
Other countries moved quickly to enact travel limitations due to variant fears. Britain has banned flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe. European Union states agreed to introduce restrictions on travel from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Singapore, Japan and Thailand also restricted travel.
Canada is banning foreign travellers to the country from seven African countries, and Australia has announced similar measures.
The World Health Organization gave the variant B.1.1.529 a name, Omicron, and said an advisory group had recommended it should be designated as “of concern”. The WHO also said preliminary evidence suggested the latest variant carried a “higher risk of re-infection than other variants of concern”.
Some health officials expressed concerned over whether present vaccines could protect against the Omicron variant.
The new variant has more than 30 mutations on the virus’s “spike protein”, by which the virus unlocks cells, more than twice the number of spike protein mutations carried by the highly transmissible Delta variant. That has spurred fears antibodies from vaccination or previous infection might not be well matched, and thus become less protective.
BioNTech, which produced a Covid vaccine with Pfizer, said it would know in two weeks whether the shot works well against the Omicron variant, based on lab-based experiments.
“Pfizer and BioNTech have taken actions months ago to be able to adapt the mRNA vaccine within six weeks and ship initial batches within 100 days in the event of an escape variant,” the company said in a statement.
In remarks to reporters, Biden said: “We don’t know a lot about the variant except that it is a big concern and seems to spread rapidly, and I spent about a half-hour this morning with my Covid team led by Dr Fauci, so that was the decision we made.”
Biden said he was not considering any other orders “at the moment”.
In his statement, the president said US adults who are fully vaccinated should get a booster shot. Those not yet fully vaccinated, he said, should “get vaccinated today”.
“This includes both children and adults,” Biden said. “America is leading the world in vaccinating children aged five to 11 and has been vaccinating teens for many months now. But we need more Americans in all age groups to get this life-saving protection. If you have not gotten vaccinated or have not taken your children to get vaccinated, now is the time.”
The president also called on “other countries to match America’s speed and generosity” in donating vaccines to poorer nations and said he would “call on the nations gathering next week for the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting to meet the US challenge to waive intellectual property protections for Covid vaccines, so these vaccines can be manufactured globally”.
The Omicron variant has been found in South Africa and Botswana, as well as in a person who traveled to Hong Kong from South Africa. Belgium was the first European nation with a confirmed case. Israel has also confirmed the presence of the variant.
Experts said the public should not panic. Sajid Javid, the British health secretary, said: “More data is needed but we’re taking precautions now.”
Fauci spoke to CNN. He said the variant was “raising some concern, particularly with regard to possibly transmissibility increase, and possibly evasion of immune response”.
Fauci said Omicron appeared to be spreading at “a reasonably rapid rate” and said US scientists were in “very active communication” with their South African counterparts, seeking to learn more.
“Right now, we’re getting the material together with our South African colleagues to get a situation where you could actually directly test it,” he said. “So, right now you’re talking about sort of like a red flag that this might be an issue – but we don’t know.
“Once you test it, you’ll know for sure whether or not it does or does not evade the antibodies that we make – for example against the virus, through a vaccine. The answer is we don’t know right now, but we’re going to find out for sure.
He continued: “This is really something that’s in motion – and we just arranged, right now, a discussion between our scientists and the South African scientists … to really get the facts. We want to find out scientist-to-scientist exactly what is going on.”
Fauci said research work was necessary to “find out if in fact [the Omicron variant] does evade the vaccines that we’re doing. You’re prepared to do everything you need to do to protect the American public, but you want to make sure there’s a basis for doing that.”
US stocks tumbled significantly on Friday in the wake of news about Omicron. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell around 905 points, marking its worst day of the year, according to NBC News. The S&P 500 fell 2.3% and Nasdaq Composite dropped 2.2%. Airlines and aviation company stocks took significant hits.