The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said Saturday that he “would not be surprised” if the recently identified omicron variant of COVID-19 was already circulating in the U.S.
The World Health Organization on Friday named omicron a “variant of concern” given its high transmissibility.
“It has a large number of mutations, particularly in that area of the virus that relates to its ability to bind to the cells in your nasal pharynx and in your lung – namely, related to transmissibility,” Fauci said in an appearance Saturday on “Weekend Today.”
“You would predict from looking at the mutations that have been identified that it likely will be more transmissible. We don’t know that yet, but you have to be careful and assume that that’s the case.”
Fauci noted that several things remain unknown about the new variant, such as whether people infected with omicron become more seriously ill than those affected with other variants, such as delta, or whether the vaccines currently being used nationwide protect against it.
“(There are) a lot of unknowns, which is the reason why we’re all over this,” the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said. “It is conceivable that (protection given by vaccines) may be diminishing a little bit … but the vaccines that we use may very well be able to contain this, and then there won’t be as serious as some people are surmising it might be.”
Fauci emphasized that the omicron variant has yet to be found in the U.S. However, he said, “When you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over.”
Several countries have reported cases of the omicron variant, which was originally discovered in southern Africa. The United Kingdom’s health secretary said Saturday that two cases of the new variant have been discovered in the country while reports indicated that cases have also been found in Italy and Germany.
On Friday, President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. is restricting travel from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe in an effort to curb the spread of the omicron variant. Fauci said Saturday that the move is aimed at giving health officials time to better assess the variant.
“We want to give us some time to really fill in the blanks of what we don’t know right now,” he said on “Weekend Today.”
“It seems to have really spread rather rapidly in South Africa (and) even though the numbers are relatively small, its ability to infect people who have recovered from infection and even people who have been vaccinated make us say, ‘This is something you got to pay really close attention to and be prepared for something that’s serious.’”
He urged people who have remained vaccine hesitant to get their shots and called for people who have been vaccinated to get boosters.
“It is absolutely essential that (the) unvaccinated get vaccinated and the vaccinated people get boosters,” he said. “If ever there was a reason now to say, ‘Putting all of these other things aside, let’s get vaccinated, let’s get boosted and let’s be careful when you’re in indoor congregate settings to make sure you wear a mask and do not pull back on your guard.’”
As of Wednesday, the last date for which data was available, just under 70% of the U.S. population – 231.3 million people – has gotten at least one dose of any of the available COVID-19 vaccines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 59% of Americans, or 196.1 million people, have been fully vaccinated, while 19% of those who have been fully vaccinated have gotten booster shots, CDC data shows.
Since the start of the pandemic, officials have reported 48.2 million cases of COVID-19 nationwide, resulting in more than 776,000 deaths, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University. Globally, 261 million cases have been reported, resulting in 5.1 million deaths, according to the university.
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