President Joe Biden on Monday cautioned Americans not to panic over the new omicron variant of the coronavirus and urged them to get their vaccine shots and boosters as the best defense against infection.
“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic," Biden said in a speech at the White House. “We have the best vaccine in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists, and we're learning more every single day. And we’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed. Not chaos and confusion.”
The omicron variant has now been found in more than a dozen countries. It hasn’t been found in the United States yet, but Canada has reported at least three cases, the first in North America.
As scientists race to deepen their understanding of the highly mutated version of the virus first detected in South Africa last week, Biden acknowledged that the new strain — which he repeatedly called “omnicron” — would arrive on our shores “sooner or later.” But he promised to avoid any further lockdowns and emphasized that Dr. Anthony Fauci, his chief medical advisor, and other experts believe that the existing vaccines will continue to offer some protection against severe disease.
"If you are vaccinated, but still worried about the new variant, get our booster. If you aren’t vaccinated, get that shot. Go get that first shot," the president said.
He added that his team does not believe that additional vaccines will be needed and that “we have more tools to fight the variant than we’ve ever had before” but said that his administration is already working with Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to plan for new versions of their shots if needed. He also urged Americans to wear masks in indoor public settings.
A World Health Organization official told CNN Monday that data on the severity and transmissibility of the new variant could be available within days, though information about the effectiveness of existing vaccines against variant will likely take longer.
Vaccine makers are racing to respond: Pfizer, BioNtech and Moderna are rushing to figure out how effective their vaccines are against the new variant — and to determine if they can quickly tailor them to better protect against it. The initial research could take a couple of weeks, and omicron-specific shots could be made available early next year. “We’ve mobilized hundreds of people,” Moderna’s chief medical officer, Paul Burton, told the BBC Sunday. “If we have to make a brand-new vaccine, I think that’s going to be early 2022 before that’s really going to be available in large quantities.”
What’s next: Biden said he would lay out a detailed plan Thursday for fighting the pandemic and the new variant over the coming winter months.