It would be no surprise if the highly transmissible omicron variant of coronavirus is already in the United States, even though health experts haven't detected it yet, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Saturday morning.
"I would not be surprised if it is," Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical adviser for the White House, told NBC's "Today." "We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you're having travel-related cases they've noted in other places already when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is going to go all over."
The Centers for Disease Control, in a statement issued Friday, said the agency is following the details of the new variant, which was first reported to the World Health Organization by South Africa, and while "no cases of this variant have been identified in the United States," but still "we expect omicron to be identified quickly if it emerges."
Meanwhile, the United States is restricting entry to travelers from eight countries in southern Africa over concerns about the variant, first found in South Africa, President Joe Biden said Friday.
The restrictions will be effective Monday and apply to South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi.
The travel restrictions were ordered to "give us time to assess it better," said Fauci.
"It's not any reason to panic, but we want to give it some time to really fill in the blanks of what we don't know right now," he added.
The new variant is a concern, said Fauci, because of the large number of mutations "that relate to its ability to bind to the cells in the nasal [passages] and lungs, namely related to transmissibility."
It's not yet determined if omicron is more transmissible than other variants, such as the delta variant that has caused the most recent surge of infection in the United States, "you have to be careful and assume that that's the case," said Fauci.
"It also has a bunch of mutations that would suggest it could evade the protection, for example, of antibodies and perhaps even plasma for people who have been infected and recovered and possibly vaccines," said Fauci. "These are all maybes. But the suggestion is enough and it seems to have spread rapidly in South Africa."
Further, even though the numbers of cases remain "relatively small" the omicron variant's ability to infect people who have already recovered from a COVID-19 infection, and to infect the already-vaccinated, "make us say this is something you have to pay close attention to and be prepared for, and something that's serious," said Fauci.
The variant may not turn out to be more serious, he conceded, "but you want to be ahead of it. That's why we're doing what we're doing."
There are also questions about whether COVID-19 is more serious when people are infected by omicron than they are by the delta variant.
"That's point number one," he said. "Point number two, are the antibodies induced by the vaccines that we are using, do they protect against this? It is conceivable it may be diminishing a little bit the protection. But the vaccines we use may very well be able to contain this, and then it won't be as serious as some people are surmising it might be."
Meanwhile, there are increases of COVID-19 cases in at least 15 cases, or almost 100,000 new cases a day, and Fauci stressed that "our fate is in our own hands" with any variant of the coronavirus that has caused the worldwide pandemic.
"It is absolutely essential that unvaccinated people get vaccinated, and the vaccinated people get boosters," said Fauci. 'We know now, clearly, that when you get a booster shot, like a third shot after the two shots of an mRNA or the second shot after the Johnson & Johnson, you dramatically increase the level of protection. If ever there was a reason now for people 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."
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