With most of the U.S. at least partially vaccinated and announcements about new oral treatments for COVID-19, it seemed like pandemic concerns could be waning as Thanksgiving weekend rolled around.
Then, the omicron variant came.
According to a statement issued Friday by President Joe Biden, his chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci and the members of the U.S. COVID response team warned him about the COVID-19 variant, which is spreading from South Africa. The World Health Organization said omicron, also called B.1.1.529, was first identified there on Nov. 24
“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” said the WHO. Along with these mutations, evidence suggests that the omicron variant could carry an increased risk of infection.
Countries should: enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants, submit complete genome sequences and associated metadata to a publicly available database; report initial cases/clusters associated with omicron infection to the WHO and more to mitigate the spread of this variant.
Biden announced that the U.S. will begin enforcing air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries as a preventative measure Monday. While no cases have been reported yet by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fauci said that the variant is likely already in the U.S.
By Saturday afternoon, cases of the omicron variant had been detected in the U.K., Germany, Italy, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium, said CNN. There were also other suspected cases in the Netherlands and the Czech Republic, according to the outlet.
Since omnicron was identified as a variant of concern, other countries have also put travel bans in place, including the U.K., Canada, Japan, Bahrain, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Austria, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Malta, Switzerland, Oman, Russia, Egypt, Singapore, Malaysia, Dubai and Saudi Arabia and others. Apart from South Africa, many bans also include Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Eswatini and Mozambique. The person who tested positive in Italy had traveled to Mozambique.
Over the summer, the Delta variant, a more transmissible version of the initial COVID-19 virus detected, caused a surge in the U.S. England's Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said that omicron is more likely to cause infection in vaccinated people than Delta. However, U.K. Government Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said that vaccines may still prevent severe infection.
As of Nov. 24, around 70 percent of the U.S. had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, close to 60 percent were fully vaccinated and around 19 percent were fully vaccinated and had received a booster shot, according to CDC data.
CNN said Saturday that Biden is expected to have another briefing about the variant.