Chief White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci warned Sunday that the omicron variant of the coronavirus will “inevitably” reach the United States as the contagion spreads from South Africa to the rest of the world.
Dr. Fauci and Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, confirmed Sunday that the variant has not yet been detected in the U.S., although it may only be a matter of time after moving recently to the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy.
“But as we all know, when you have a virus that has already gone to multiple countries, inevitably it will be here,” Dr. Fauci said on ABC’s “This Week.” “The question is, will we be prepared for it? And the preparation that we have ongoing for what we’re doing now with the delta variant just needs to be revved up.”
President Biden imposed Friday travel restrictions barring entry starting Monday from eight African countries, including South Africa, after the World Health Organization labeled omicron a “variant of concern.”
Dr. Collins said it was still unknown whether omicron “could compete against delta,” referring to the highly contagious delta variant, although omicron “certainly shows the signs of being able to spread quickly.”
He cited the example of the beta variant, which “never really took off because delta was so incredibly effective in spreading that it couldn’t compete.”
“We don’t know what omicron will look like if it gets to our country, and I hope it doesn’t, but it’s fairly likely we’ll see cases,” Dr. Collins said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “Will it be able to compete, or will it fizzle?”
In the next few weeks, he said, there should be more answers as medical experts gain data from South Africa.
“We do think it’s more contagious when you look at how rapidly it’s spread through multiple districts in South Africa,” said Dr. Collins. “It has the earmarks therefore of being particularly likely to spread from one person to another.”
Also under examination is how effective the COVID-19 vaccination will be against the variant.
“We’ll get some sense of that already from what’s happening in South Africa because about 37% of South Africans are vaccinated,” said Dr. Collins. “We should be able to find out in the next two or three weeks, is the protection they’re having somewhat better than the unvaccinated people?”
Both he and Dr. Fauci emphasized that Americans should take precautions by getting fully vaccinated or getting the booster.
“So stay tuned,” said Dr. Collins. “We’re going to get better information about this. There’s no reason to panic, but it’s a great reason to go and get boosted.”
About 59% of Americans have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the CDC.