President Biden on Monday urged calm amid widespread concern about the Omicron coronavirus variant first identified this month in southern Africa, urging Americans to get vaccinated and wear masks.
Biden stopped short, though, of advocating for any new Covid-19 restrictions, like requiring vaccinations to board domestic flights or re-imposing local mask mandates.
“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” he said during an afternoon speech. “We’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions, and speed, not chaos and confusion.”
During the speech, Biden said he’ll issue a new plan on Thursday about the government’s strategy for combating Covid-19 throughout the coming winter. For now, though, he urged Americans who aren’t yet vaccinated to finally be immunized, and pushed any adult who received their second vaccine dose prior to June 1 to return for a third.
The president’s remarks come as governments across the globe scramble to respond to the emergence of the new variant, which the World Health Organization classified as a “variant of concern” on Friday.
Little is known about the new strain, including arguably the three most critical questions: whether it’s more transmissible than previous variants, whether it causes more severe disease, and whether it’s better at escaping the powerful protection offered by existing Covid-19 vaccines.
Still, almost immediately upon learning of the new strain, Biden banned travel from South Africa and Botswana, the two countries that first sequenced the Omicron variant, as well as six other southern African nations.
During his Monday speech, he said the move was an effort to buy time for the government to learn more about the variant and for more Americans to be vaccinated.
Biden brushed aside the critique that banning travel from nations that report new variants essentially punishes them for transparency.
He also downplayed criticisms that the U.S. has prioritized its own vaccine rollout, especially the effort to provide booster doses, at the expense of poorer nations, in effect leaving entire countries unvaccinated and vulnerable to the emergence of potentially dangerous new variants.
“Not a single vaccine shot Americans ever send to the rest of the world will ever come at the expense of any American,” he said. “I will always make sure that our people are protected first. But vaccinating the world is just one more tool, and how we need to meet our moral obligation as Americans and how to best protect Americans as well.”
Though Biden urged calm, he said the federal government was also working on contingency plans with the three main U.S. vaccine manufacturers — Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson — to update their shots in the event the Omicron variant proves elusive.
“In the event, hopefully unlikely, that updated vaccinations for boosters are needed to respond to this new variant, we will accelerate their development and deployment with every available tool,” Biden said. “I want to reiterate, Dr. Fauci believes that the current vaccines provide at least some protection against new variant, and the boosters strengthen that protection significantly.”
Biden’s remarks came just weeks after U.S. regulators authorized booster shots for all adults, following months of controversy and muddled messaging about whether they’re necessary.
The federal government is also moving to secure access to antiviral medications under development from Pfizer and Merck, though neither has been approved yet and access challenges could prevent them from making a major dent in hospitalizations and deaths. It’s also unclear whether the antivirals will prove less effective against the Omicron variant.