In this photo illustration, a hand is holding a medical syringe with words that say Omicron-Covid-19 variant in the background.
Rafael Henrique | LightRakete | Getty Images
White House senior medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said Tuesday that so far 226 cases of the highly mutated Omicron-Covid-19 variant have been detected in 20 countries, but U.S. officials have not yet confirmed a case in the states.
The variant, which appeared for the first time in South Africa about a week ago, has more than 30 mutations in the spike protein alone. This is the key part of the virus that allows it to attach to human cells and infect the body. It also worries scientists that it could escape vaccination protection or be far more contagious than the already highly contagious Delta variant, which has seen a surge in cases around the world in recent months.
“This mutation profile is very different from other interesting and worrying variants, and although some mutations are also found in the delta, this is not a delta,” Fauci told reporters at a briefing by the White House Covid-19 Task Force. “These mutations have been linked to increased transmissibility and immune evasion.”
There are several other mutations in the virus that scientists haven’t seen before and don’t know how they will change the way the virus behaves or how it spreads, he said.
Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel warned on Monday that Omicron had already spread around the world. He referred to flights that arrived in Amsterdam from South Africa on Friday, where 61 out of 624 passengers tested positive for Covid. A total of 14 of them are infected with the Omicron strain, said the Dutch health authorities.
The Portuguese health authorities announced on Monday that 13 members and employees of a professional football team in Lisbon became infected with the variant after one of their players returned from a trip to South Africa.
“We also believe that it is already there in most countries,” Bancel said in an interview with CNBC. “I believe that most of the countries that have had direct flights from South Africa in the past seven to 10 days already have cases in their country that they may not be aware of.”
U.S. officials are stepping up surveillance of international travelers at airports and making regular, even daily calls to state and local health officials, laboratory directors, state epidemiologists, and others to look for Omicron cases, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The nation has also stepped up genomic sequencing of Covid cases in recent months, sequencing about 80,000 samples a week, up from about 8,000 a week earlier this year, Walensky said at the briefing. The Delta variant remains the predominant strain in the U.S., accounting for about 99.9% of all cases sequenced across the country, she said.
“To be very clear, we have far more tools to combat the variant today than we had at that time last year,” said Walensky.
Fauci said it was too early to say whether Omicron will be more deadly or milder than the Delta variant. He noted that reports of milder symptoms in South Africa were based on a small number of cases and occurred in younger and healthier patients who usually have milder Covid. People in the US and Europe tend to be older and less healthy than the population of South Africa, said Bancel of Moderna.
“It is very difficult to know whether this particular variant will lead to a serious illness or not,” said Fauci. “Although some preliminary information from South Africa suggests that there are no unusual symptoms associated with a variant, we don’t know and it is too early to say.”
Officials reiterated their urge to increase vaccinations, saying the best way to protect against the variant is to get vaccinated, refreshed, and continue to wear masks and avoid crowds.
“How do we address Omicron? We have said it over and over and it is worth repeating, if you haven’t been vaccinated get vaccinated. Get boosted if you are vaccinated in poorly ventilated areas, “Fauci said.
The CDC stepped up its recommendations on Covid boosters on Monday, saying everyone over 18 should get one.
Walensky said the CDC’s definition of “fully vaccinated” has not changed. It’s still two weeks after the second vaccination from Moderna or Pfizer or one from Johnson & Johnson. But she said the more the virus mutates, the greater the need to boost immunity. “As this science evolves, we’ll see if we need to update our definition of fully vaccinated,” she said.