Despite concerns, U.S. is better prepared to fight omicron variant, CDC says
Health officials said Tuesday that even as the world learns anew how "unpredictable" the coronavirus is, with still so much unknown about the omicron variant that has countries around the world sounding alarms, the United States is far better prepared to fight and contain it than it was with other highly transmissible variants, such as delta.
"To be crystal clear - we have far more tools to fight the variant than we had at this time last year," Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Tuesday during a White House coronavirus briefing. Health officials should "remain ready to be proactive" as data continues to be analyzed and as new mutations evolve, she added.
"One thing has become clear over the past 20 months: We cannot predict the future, but we can prepare for it," she said.
As part of the ramped-up efforts to ward off new variants, Walensky said, the United States has increased genomic sequencing from 8,000 samples a week earlier this year to 80,000 samples a week - one in every seven positive PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test results.
The CDC is also expanding its surveillance to four of the busiest airports in the country - New York's John F. Kennedy, San Francisco International, Newark Liberty and Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson - for increased testing for specific international arrivals. The CDC will evaluate additional post-arrival testing and self-quarantines, Walensky added.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, underlined the "unusual" constellation of changes found in omicron's genome, arguing that although some of the mutations are also found in delta, this is "something different."
While these mutations have been associated with increased transmissibility and immunization, Fauci said that it will take two to four weeks for scientists to be able to reach a conclusion on exactly how contagious the variant is, as well as its capacity to evade vaccines and produce severe disease.
Fauci urged the public to get vaccinated or get booster shots.
"The significant reductions are possible because mutations suggest immune evasion, but as with other variants, vaccines and boosters give a level of antibodies that gives you a degree of cross-protection, particularly against severe disease," Fauci said.