The White House said Tuesday that people should not leap to conclusions about the severity of illness from the omicron variant amid widely circulated reports about early patients who had mild symptoms.
Dr. Anthony Fauci said those patients were young, so their experience might not extend across the population, given the pandemic’s heavy impact on the elderly.
“Be careful about bread crumbs, they might not tell you what kind of loaf of bread you have,” Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told a White House reporter who asked him to talk about what the early “crumbs” of data reveal.
Dr. Angelique Coetzee told British media outlets that early patients in South Africa did not suffer from severe illness and didn’t lose their taste or smell. She cautioned that they were on the younger side, a point that Dr. Fauci and others echoed.
“We believe it is too soon to tell what the level of severity is,” Dr. Fauci said, adding that South African counterparts agreed with him in recent phone calls.
Michael Mina, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the media to “please stop repeating anecdotes that physicians have seen mild cases of omicron.”
“The VAST majority of COVID cases of all variants are mild. The problem is a fraction are not, and when cases pile up, the fraction adds to a lot of hospitalization, death, and long-COVID,” Mr. Mina tweeted.
White House officials said there have been 205 known cases of omicron from 18 countries, although not in the U.S.
Dutch officials said Tuesday they found the omicron variant in a sample collected Nov. 19, indicating it was present in Europe before it burst into view last week and countries put restrictions on air travel from South Africa and surrounding nations.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said it is collecting samples from all states and territories and, so far, 99.9% of all sequenced samples remain the delta variant that took over during the summer.
She said the CDC continues to recommend indoor mask-wearing in high transmission areas alongside hand-washing and physical distancing.
“These methods work to prevent the spread of COVID-19, no matter the genetic sequence,” Dr. Walensky said.
Dr. Fauci, meanwhile, said there is a “very unusual constellation of changes” in the “business end” of the virus, namely the spike protein, in the omicron variant. And while there are many unknowns about the variant, he said virus samples that pour in over the next two to four weeks should give a clearer picture.
Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel caused a stir Tuesday by telling the Financial Times there may be a “material drop” in vaccine effectiveness against omicron, but others remain hopeful.
Dr. Fauci said COVID-19 vaccines were built to target the ancestral strain from Wuhan but the shots spur a big enough antibody response and trigger the immune system to suppress most variants.
“You get a level so high that even if the mutations of various variants diminish that level of protection, you are still within the range of some degree of protection,” Dr. Fauci said. “And that’s usually most manifested in protection against severe disease that leads to hospitalization.”
“We’re hoping and I think, with good reason, to feel good that there will be some degree of protection,” he said.
White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said the federal government is working along two paths, studying whether existing vaccines and boosters can fend off the variant and getting ready to procure specially tailored vaccines if necessary. He said more than 100 million fully vaccinated adults in the U.S. are eligible for a booster shot but haven’t gotten one yet.
“Go get a booster today,” Mr. Zients said.
Dr. Walensky said that despite the call for extra doses, the CDC’s definition of fully vaccinated remains two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
“We are not changing the definition of fully vaccinated right now,” Dr. Walensky said.
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.