California Health Officials Identify First Case of Omicron Covid Variant in United States
18:47 GMT 01.12.2021 (Updated: 13:26 GMT 06.08.2022)
Scientists have few firm answers about the properties of the new Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, including how long it's been in circulation. As a result, African officials like South African President Cyril Ramaphosa have condemned travel bans against their nations as "scientifically unjustified."
The first case in the United States of the Omicron variant has been identified in California, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on Wednesday.
According to the joint statement by the CDC and the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the person detected with the variant "was a traveler who returned from South Africa on November 22, 2021. The individual, who was fully vaccinated and had mild symptoms that are improving, is self-quarantining and has bene since testing positive. All close contacts have been contacted and have tested negative."
After the variant was first identified by South African scientists last month and named Omicron by the World Health Organization, the US and several other countries instituted travel bans on eight southern African nations, including South Africa. However, there are significant indications that it has been circulating for much longer, as Dutch authorities said
they had detected the variant before the subsequent wave of flight bans from southern African nations took effect, and Nigerian scientists claim
to have found Omicron-positive blood tests taken in October.
Both the WHO and the CDC have classified Omicron as a Variant of Concern.
The Omicron variant has aroused concerns by health officials due to the unusually large number of mutations found in its spike protein, the device the virus uses to infect the host's cells - 32, far more than any other known variant. Since mutations have helped variants like Delta to become far more transmissive than regular SARS-CoV-2, some fear Omicron could have a similar capability, or be able to evade some immune
defenses created by prior SARS-CoV-2 infection or by vaccines. However, others have pointed out
that not every mutation is necessarily a beneficial one, meaning it might not be easier to spread after all.
So far, indications seem to be that Omicron causes a milder form
of COVID-19, with some symptoms being less severe and others not appearing at all, and significantly fewer hospitalized cases. Nonetheless, the CDC has strongly recommended
that all eligible Americans get vaccinated or get a booster shot.
White House Response to Omicron
Speaking about supply chain issues on Wednesday, US President Joe Biden said that "we are going to know in the next several weeks that not just how transmissible the disease is, but how extensive it is, how dangerous it is and what damage it does and most importantly whether the vaccines we have are capable of dealing with this virus. I think it’s a little early to make that judgement, but am I concerned, of course I am, until we get the final answers.”
Because such "final answers" don't exist, African leaders have pushed back on the putative travel bans imposed by the US, European Union, and others.
“We call upon all those countries that have imposed travel bans on our country and our southern African sister countries to immediately and urgently reverse their decisions,” Ramaphosa said on Sunday. Nations from which the US has restricted entry include South Africa, as well as Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi.
“The prohibition of travel is not informed by science,” he added. “The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic."
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and Biden's chief medical adviser, defended the ban on Wednesday, despite admitting that “no one feels, I certainly don't, that a travel ban is going to prevent people who are infected from coming to the United States, but we needed to buy some time to be able to prepare, understand what's going on."
“So, we look at this as a temporary measure," he added.
White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said in a statement following Wednesday's news that the administration is "prepared to meet this challenge with science and speed."
"The President’s medical team continues to believe that existing vaccines will provide some level of protection against severe illness from Omicron, and individuals who have gotten boosters have even stronger protection. As such, we urge all adults to get their booster shots and to get themselves and their kids vaccinated, if they haven’t already," Zients said. "This new variant is cause for continued vigilance, not panic. We know what it takes to limit the spread of COVID: Get vaccinated, get boosted, and take public health measures like masking and distancing."
Moderna, the pharmaceutical company responsible for manufacturing one of the three COVID-19 vaccines administered in the US, also responded to the news, saying they had "already started" on a program to adapt their shot to the emergence of the Omicron variant. Moderna President Stephen Hodge said Wednesday they expected to have a booster shot targeting Omicron ready to file for US authorization as soon as March of 2022.