US President Joe Biden has called the Omicron Covid variant a “cause for concern, not a cause for panic” one day after it was detected in North America.
Cases have been found in Canada, and his speech from the White House comes as US travel bans on eight African countries takes effect. Biden also urged people to get a booster and to wear masks.
He said he does not anticipate any further US travel restrictions or lockdowns at this time.
In remarks on Monday, the president called it “almost inevitable” that the Omicron strain, first reported by South Africa, will be found in the US “at some point”. He added that said vaccine companies are creating “contingency plans” for new vaccines “if needed”.
Late last week, the US announced a ban on flights from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. Canada, the UK and the EU and other countries have also restricted travel from southern Africa.
In his remarks, Mr Biden said that the ban had bought some time for the US to study the new strain. While the World Health Organization has deemed Omicron a “variant of concern”, it is still not clear whether it is associated with more transmission or more risk of evading vaccines.
“We have the best vaccine in the world, and the best medicines, the best scientist and we’re learning more every single day,” the president said. He also vowed to “fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed. Not chaos and confusion”.
He praised the scientific community of South Africa for reporting the strain, despite criticism that travel bans are being used to punish the country.
“To their credit, the scientific community in South Africa quickly notified the world of the emergence of this new variant,” Mr Biden said. “This kind of transparency is to be encouraged and applauded because it increases our ability to respond quickly to any new threats, and that’s exactly what we did.”
He also said he was directing the US Food and Drug Administration, which regulates vaccines, to use the “fastest process available without cutting any corners” to approve any potential new vaccines that specifically target Omicron.
Canada, the US neighbour to the north, said on Sunday that the Omicron strain had been discovered in two patients who had recently travelled to Nigeria. A third case was announced on Monday.