Much is still unknown about the transmissibility of the new variant and how effective vaccines will be in protecting Americans against it, but the administration is attempting to strike a more proactive stance than they did this summer when they appeared to be caught flat-footed by the highly contagious Delta variant, which now accounts for the vast majority of cases in the United States — and blunted Biden’s efforts to speed the country back to normalcy in the first year of his term.
In his haste to turn the page from the pandemic, Biden predicted a “summer of freedom” at the same time the Delta variant was taking hold across the United States and went so far as to proclaim that America was “closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus” at a July Fourth event. With those missteps in mind, Biden spent Sunday evening huddling with advisers, and plans to speak Monday on the situation. He moved rapidly to announce the new travel restrictions Friday after the World Health Organization labeled Omicron a “variant of concern,” a signal that the White House was taking the new variant first identified by scientists in South Africa seriously.
The travel bans alone, however, may offer little comfort to Americans given the widespread debate among public health officials about their effectiveness. Anxiety over this new Covid threat is particularly high after a week of heavy travel and a Thanksgiving holiday that had offered a fleeting sense that the nation was returning to normalcy. On Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Americans set a new pandemic-era air travel record with the Transportation Security Administration reporting that it screened 2.3 million passengers at airports on that day alone.
Canadian health officials confirmed the country’s first two cases of the Omicron Covid-19 variant in Ottawa on Sunday. Germany and the United Kingdom have also confirmed cases within their borders, and on Sunday UK officials announced that face coverings will be mandatory in shops and on public transport, while all travelers returning to the UK will be required to undergo PCR testing for Covid-19.
Scientists are especially concerned about the fact that Omicron has more than 30 mutations in a part of the virus called the spike protein, a structure the coronavirus uses to enter the cells it attacks — raising fears that that it could evade the protections offered by the vaccines currently available in the United States.
The uncertainty around the new variant has served as yet another setback for Biden and for the Democratic-controlled Congress given that their political success in next year’s elections will hinge in part on showing that they have successfully led the nation out of the pandemic. Biden’s poll numbers have slumped amid concerns about the economy, rising inflation and the supply chain crisis — but the erosion of confidence among Americans about his handling of Covid-19 has been particularly notable given that it was once the area where voters gave him the highest marks.
As he seeks to restore faith in his administration’s handling of Covid, Biden’s biggest challenge may be the stubborn resistance among the approximately 60 million American adults who remain unvaccinated and the political polarization around the tools at his disposal, including mask and vaccine mandates.
Public health officials expressed fresh urgency Sunday about the need for unvaccinated Americans to get their shots — and for those who are eligible for booster shots to get them. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has warned that Omicron could already be present in the United States. On NBC’s “Meet The Press” on Sunday, Fauci called the threat of the new variant “a clarion call” for the country to “put aside all of these differences that we have and say if you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated; if you’re fully vaccinated, get boosted; and get the children vaccinated.”
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, acknowledged that many Americans feel a sense of exhaustion with pandemic mitigation strategies like masking and social distancing, but he said it was time to redouble those efforts and guard against complacency in the face of the new threat.
“We have to use every kind of tool in our toolbox to keep (Omicron) from getting in a situation that makes this worse,” he told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” Sunday, adding that officials are working with vaccine manufacturers to try to assess their effectiveness against the new strain. “There’s no reason to panic. But it is a great reason to go get boosted.”
Many unanswered questions remain
Moderna’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Paul Burton said Sunday that Americans should brace for several weeks of uncertainty as scientists and vaccine manufacturers investigate the transmissibility of the new variant, the level of illness that it causes and whether the antibodies produced in response to the current vaccines will be effective in thwarting it.
Moderna is exploring the possibility of an Omicron-specific vaccine booster should that become necessary, Burton said.
“This is a virus now with at least 50 mutations, many of them spanning the previous variants of concern, Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta. At least 30 mutations in the spike protein alone that we know lead to immune evasion and escape, and also increased replication,” Burton said on CNN’s “Newsroom.” “This is a new wrench that has been thrown into the fight against Covid.”
Brown University School of Public Health Dean Dr. Ashish Jha has warned that the data about transmissibility of the new variant has looked “worrisome” thus far, in part because it has taken off quickly in South Africa. He warned in a guest essay in The New York Times this weekend that there is no time to waste, because if it “turns out to be as contagious and immune-evasive as many experts worry it might be, waiting until all the facts are in will leave us hopelessly far behind.”
In an interview on CNN’s “Inside Politics” on Sunday, he explained that “we see all of these mutations in the spike protein in areas that our vaccines and our immune system target — and that makes a lot of us concerned about immune evasion. We don’t think that our vaccines are going to be rendered useless, but at the same time, we don’t know how much of a hit the vaccines are going to take,” he said.
Jha argued that the effect of the travel ban against foreign nationals from the eight African countries would be “modest at best” and urged the Biden administration ramp up genomic surveillance, work with vaccine makers to create Omicron-specific vaccines and to push for a more robust effort to get more people vaccinated in Africa.
Dr. Leana Wen, a CNN medical analyst who is the former Baltimore health commissioner, said she believed the travel restrictions for the eight countries were necessary but added that the Biden administration should go even further by quarantining and re-testing all international travelers. As the US allows permanent residents and American citizens to return from the African nations affected by the restrictions, she added, they should also be required to re-test and quarantine to prevent the variant from spreading.
“Otherwise, there are just too many loopholes and we’re not really accomplishing our goal, which is to contain Omicron and try to prevent it from getting to this country, recognizing that it may already be in the US,” she said.
Some of the sharpest criticism of the travel bans enforced by the US and other countries came Sunday from South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.
“These restrictions are completely unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country and our southern African sister countries,” Ramaphosa said in an address on Sunday. “The prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant. The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to and also to recover from the pandemic.”
Biden on Monday will have to answer those criticisms and whether there are more effective steps he can pursue against the new variant when he faces a nation looking for answers.