A worrisome new strain of the coronavirus pushed the pandemic back to the forefront Sunday, spurring global travel restrictions and raising alarm about the South African variant’s potential to deliver another medical and economic blow to the U.S.
White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said that no cases have been detected in the U.S., but said it was only a matter of time before the omicron variant reaches American shores.
“As we all know, when you have a virus that has already gone to multiple countries, inevitably it will be here,” said Dr. Fauci 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,” he warned.
Indeed, Canadian officials announced Sunday that the omicron variant had reached their country, with two cases in the province of Ontario putting the latest virus mutation on America’s largest land border with its biggest trading partner.
Australia also found two cases and the Netherlands found 13 by Sunday, a strong indication that the virus already has spread far beyond southern Africa.
The White House COVID Response Team urged Americans to get fully vaccinated or a booster shot “as soon as possible” after meeting Sunday on the variant with President Biden and Dr. Fauci.
Even before the first U.S. case, the variant was taking a toll.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 905 points, or 2.5%, Friday for its biggest plunge since June 2020 as the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that omicron had been labeled a “variant of concern,” the first since the delta variant was detected in December 2020.
Mr. Biden announced flight restrictions on South Africa and seven other African countries, slated to take effect Monday. Others announcing travel limits to the southern Africa region included the European Union, Canada, Israel and Singapore.
Dr. Fauci acknowledged that travel bans are ineffective against viruses in the long run, but said that they can “slow things down,” giving countries a chance to “prepare for the worst.”
“What you can do is you can delay it enough to get us better prepared. And that’s the thing that people need to understand,” he said. “If you’re going to do the travel ban the way we’ve done now and that we’re implementing right now, utilize the time that you’re buying to fill in the gaps.”
The variant has also raised concerns about another round of economically devastating and politically divisive lockdowns, but Dr. Fauci said it was “really too early to say” whether such steps would be necessary.
“People talking about lockdowns, people talking about that, let’s see what the information that we’re getting in real time tells us, and we’ll make decisions based on the science and the evidence, the way we always do,” he said. “But you want to be prepared to do anything and everything. And that’s the reason why we’re paying such close attention to this and why we’re all over it.”
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, acknowledged that “it’s certainly not good news.”
“We don’t know yet how much of an impact this will have,” Dr. Collins said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “It ought to redouble our efforts to use the tools that we have, which are vaccinations and boosters, and to be sure we’re getting those to the rest of the world too, which the U.S. is doing more than any other country.”
‘The virus is not tired of us’
Whether the omicron variant spurs another round of shutdown orders hinges on its factors including severity and transmissibility, neither of which is fully understood at this point, according to the WHO.
In a Sunday statement, WHO said that the number of cases in South Africa pushed by the variant is rising, but that “epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors.”
Also under study is whether omicron causes more severe infections than other variants, including delta.
“Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron,” WHO said. “There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants.”
Another major question is whether the COVID-19 vaccine is effective against the omicron variant, but Dr. Collins said there is reason for optimism.
“Based on what we’ve learned so far with alpha, beta, gamma and delta [variants], the vaccines which are generated against the original virus still work, and the boosters work particularly well,” Dr. Collins told CNN.
He said the COVID-19 booster “basically enlarges the capacity of your immune system to recognize all kinds of different spike proteins it’s never seen.”
“This is a great day to go and get boosted or find out how to do so at vaccines.gov,” he said.
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,” said Dr. Collins.
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. “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, including information on the effectiveness of the vaccination in combating the variant, though the issue is complicated by South Africa’s low vaccination rate.
“We’ll get some sense of that already from what’s happening in South Africa because about 37% of South Africans are vaccinated,” Dr. Collins said.
“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?” He added.
The strain has already spurred political wrangling.
Rep. Thomas Massie, Kentucky Republican, mocked the Biden administration’s travel ban, tweeting, “No worries, travel ban begins next week because you know, variants don’t spread on holiday weekends.”
He added, “ps. Who really believes this variant isn’t already here?”
The South Africa Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation accused other nations Saturday of “punishing” the nation for reporting the variant by cutting off travel.
“This latest round of travel bans is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker,” the foreign ministry said. “Excellent science should be applauded and not punished. The global community needs collaboration and partnerships in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The COVID-19 variants are named after Greek alphabet letters, but WHO skipped the 13th and 14th letters, nu and xi, in labeling the omicron variant.
The decision to leapfrog letters prompted accusations of pandering to China, a longstanding charge since the beginning of the virus in Wuhan, China.
The English spelling of “xi” is the same as the name of Chinese President Xi Jinping, although WHO said “xi” was skipped to avoid giving offense to regions and groups.
“’Nu’ is too easily confounded with ‘new,’ and ‘Xi’ was not used because it is a common last name, and WHO best practices for naming disease suggest avoiding ‘causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups,’” the WHO said in an email.
The 14th letter of the Greek alphabet, although it is represented in English as “Xi,” is pronounced /gz/ as in most English pronunciations of “exactly.” It is unrelated to the Chinese name “Xi,” which is a Latin-alphabet representation of a pictograph that is pronounced like the English feminine pronoun “she.”
Among those who criticized the move were Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, and Donald Trump Jr., both longtime WHO critics.
“If the WHO is this scared of the Chinese Communist Party, how can they be trusted to call them out the next time they’re trying to cover up a catastrophic global pandemic?” asked Mr. Cruz in a Friday tweet.
The variant also presents another challenge for Mr. Biden as he struggles with a free-fall in the polls.
His approval rating on his handling of the pandemic has dropped from 69% in January to 48% as of Saturday, according to FiveThirtyEight.
More than 770,000 people in the U.S. and 5.2 million people worldwide have died of COVID-19 since the outbreak began in December 2019 in China.
Dr. Collins said the variant means that “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.”
“I know, America, you’re really tired of hearing those things, but the virus is not tired of us, and it’s shape-shifting itself,” he said. “If you imagine we’re on a racetrack here, the virus just sort of emerged in a new version, and it’s trying to catch up with us.”
• Shen Wu Tan and Victor Morton contributed to this report.
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.