White House to Release Plan for Fighting COVID-19 Variants
WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said he will unveil plans this week on how his administration will work to slow the spread of the new COVID-19 variant, known as omicron, which emerged in South Africa and has been classified by the World Health Organization as a variant of concern.
“This variant is cause for concern, not a cause for panic. We have the best vaccine in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists, and we are learning more every single day. We will fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion,” said Biden, during a press conference on Monday.
On Thursday the White House will release a detailed strategy outline for how to fight COVID-19 this winter which will include a push for more widespread vaccination and testing.
“We are in a very different place as we enter the month of December this month compared to where we were last Christmas,” said Biden.
According to Biden, last Christmas fewer than 1% of US adults were vaccinated while this Christmas that number will be over 71%.
“To beat the pandemic, we have to vaccinate the world as well,” said Biden.
So far, the U.S. has shipped more vaccines to other countries than all the countries in the world combined, according to Biden, who said 275 million vaccines have been shipped from the U.S. to 110 countries.
In South Africa where the omicron variant was first identified, only about 42% of the population is fully vaccinated, despite the fact that the vaccination programs and surveillance systems are some of the most efficient of any developed country.
“The gold star goes to South Africa for their robust surveillance programs. [The omicron variant] could have emerged in other places that weren’t doing surveillance,” said Dr. Adam Brown, chief impact officer and COVID-19 Task Force chair at Envision Healthcare, during a zoom call with the Well News.
Brown said there is currently not enough data to understand whether the omicron variant is more or less severe than other variants.
In the coming months, researchers will be paying attention to whether the new omicron variant is capable of evading vaccines, whether it’s more severe and more transmissible than previous variants.
According to Brown, every time an individual is infected with COVID-19 little pieces of genetic material get incorporated into the virus, and the virus starts to mutate. In areas of the world where there are low levels of vaccination and high levels of spread the mutation will occur more rapidly.
“We are not protected in the U.S., until we are all protected in the world,” said Brown.
The first case of the omicron variant was identified this week in the U.S., but according to Brown it could take weeks to become the predominant strain, if it ever does.
“But what’s here right now is delta, and delta causes significant severity of illness and death, and is very transmissible, much more so than the original [COVID-19] strain,” continued Brown.
Brown said genetic sequencing data shows that 99.9% of the current cases of coronavirus in this country are the delta variant.
“We know that getting vaccinated and getting boosted, if it’s been longer than six months for the mRNA vaccines or greater than two months for J&J, is highly protective against this delta variant. So, that’s the first thing we need to do before we start to worry about what’s going on in the future,” said Brown.
Brown said the winter months, which will bring colder temperatures and increases in travel, will also play a role in how easily the virus spreads.
“I’m very concerned right now as we head into the holiday season because 41% of the United States is not fully unvaccinated. That concerns me because winter is a worse season for respiratory viruses. We move traditionally from more outside activities to inside activities, where ventilation decreases, people are more clustered together, and the air is drier allowing for viruses to not only spread more easily but also be incorporated into the body much more easily,” said Brown.
For now, the Biden administration will not include any lockdown orders as part of the strategy to combat the omicron variant.
Still, Brown said if a variant emerged which evaded the vaccine and was much more severe than delta and highly transmissible that other public health mitigation strategies could be required.
In the event of a variant that is resistant to vaccines, Brown said Pfizer and Moderna would change the mRNA within the vaccine and there would be an entirely new vaccination plan and global distribution.
“Based on reports from Pfizer and Moderna both companies have said they are able to make modifications in vaccines very, very quickly. Pfizer said within 100 days,” said Brown.
Biden said his administration is already working with officials at Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans for vaccines and boosters if needed.
“Before this pandemic there had been very little discussion in broad circles about how viruses are identified and how vaccines are created. We will have to do a better job as a country, and as a world, to really lean on the voice of physicians, scientists and public health officials and really use them as sources of truth for our response to any of our public health emergencies,” said Brown.
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