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U.S. health officials urge caution, but not panic, over omicron variant

29th Nov 2021 | Economics

As countries around the world implemented new restrictions amid the discovery of an alarming new variant of COVID-19, U.S. health officials on Sunday tried to walk a very fine line with their messaging — that we need to take the omicron variant very seriously, but that there’s no reason to panic.

Preliminary evidence suggests the omicron variant is more transmissible than the delta variant, but it remains unclear whether its symptoms are worse, or if vaccines are as effective against it. Knowing more is likely to take two to three weeks of additional data, experts say.

"This is a story that’s based entirely on speculation,” Dr. Jonathan Reiner told CNN. “We will have data from really hardworking scientists over the next few weeks that will help inform how we can put this new variant into context.”

In a series of interviews on Sunday morning talk shows, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the White House’s chief medical adviser, said it is inevitable that the omicron variant will reach the U.S., and warned that it may be more transmissible than other variants, even delta. He also stressed that while there’s much we don’t know about omicron, it’s better to be safe — and possibly overreact — than sorry.

“We just really need to, as I’ve said so often, prepare for the worst,” Fauci told ABC News’ “This Week.” “It may not be that we’re going to have to go the route that people are saying. We don’t know a lot about this virus. So, we want to prepare as best we can, but it may turn out that this preparation, although important, may not necessarily push us to the next level.”

Fauci said getting vaccinated and getting boosters are still the best defense.

“I don’t think there’s any possibility that this could completely evade any protection by vaccine. It may diminish it a bit, but that’s the reason why you boost,” he told ABC News. “If ever there was a reason for the people who were vaccinated to get boosted, and for those who were unvaccinated to get vaccinated, it’s now,” Fauci said in a separate interview with NBC News.

In an interview on Fox News, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, agreed that vaccines will “most likely” protect against omicron, though it’s still too soon to tell exactly.

“We expect that most likely the current vaccines will be sufficient to provide protection,” Collins told “Fox News Sunday.” “And especially the boosters will give that additional layer of protection because there’s something about the booster that causes your immune system to really expand its capacity against all kinds of different spike proteins, even ones it hasn’t seen before.” 

Speaking to CNN, Collins added that more basic precautions are also important.

“It also means we need to pay attention to those mitigation strategies that people are just really sick of, like wearing masks when you’re indoors with other people who might not be vaccinated, and keeping that social distance,” Collins told CNN. “I know, America — you’re really tired of hearing those things. But the virus is not tired of us. And it’s shapeshifting itself.”

The doctor who first sounded the alarm about omicron, Barry Schoub, chairman of South Africa’s Ministerial Advisory Committee on Vaccines, told Sky News on Sunday that all the cases he’s seen so far have been “mild-to-moderate cases, and that’s a good sign,” though he warned that could always change. The World Health Organization noted Sunday those cases have been in younger patients, who tend to have milder reactions anyway.

But bottom line, “This is the most concerning variant we’ve seen since delta,” Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, told the Washington Post on Friday.

On Sunday, President Joe Biden met with the White House COVID-19 response team, including Fauci, to discuss omicron. While reiterating that it will take weeks to study the variant and that vaccines and boosters provide the strongest protection, the White House said Biden will provide an update about the new variant and U.S. response on Monday.

Investors may have been heartened that the omicron news wasn’t worse: After Wall Street suffered its worst selloff in more than a year Friday, Dow Jones Industrial Average futures YM00, 0.72% shot higher Sunday. S&P 500 futures ES00, 0.89% and Nasdaq-100 futures NQ00, 0.99% also gained.

By: Mike Murphy