It’s still too early to tell: That is the message from the White House COVID-19 Response Team as scientists race to find out more about the omicron variant.
“We believe that it is too soon to tell of what the level of severity is,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said during Response Team briefing on Tuesday, nearly two weeks since the omicron variant was first detected in South Africa.
The Response Team says a case of the omicron variant could be detected in the United States any day now.
“We are actively looking for the omicron variant right here in the U.S. Right now, there is no evidence of omicron in the U.S.,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The delta variant remains the dominant strain representing 99.9% of all sequences sampled.”
The Food and Drug Administration has said it believes a PCR test and the rapid antigen test will be able to detect the new variant, but those tests will only tell you if you are positive or negative. Special genome testing needs to be done to detect the actual variant — which is why there may already be cases here in the U.S. and we just don’t know yet.
But Walensky says testing is ramping up.
“We are now sequencing approximately 80,000 samples per week about one in every seven PCR positive cases, and that’s more than any other country,” Walensky said.
And the medical experts agree: get vaccinated, and if you are vaccinated, get boosted before the variant gets here. The CDC updated its guidance on Monday, saying that anyone age 18 and older should get their booster six months after their second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine and two months after Johnson & Johnson’s shot.
But a question was posed during Tuesday’s briefing: Why should people get vaccinated and boosted when every vaccine maker says they don’t know how its shot will hold up to the variant?
“So when that although these mutations suggest a diminution of protection and a degree of immune evasion, you still, from experience that we have with delta, can make a reasonable conclusion that you would not eliminate all protection against this particular variant,” Fauci said. “And that’s the reason why we don’t know what that degree of diminution of protection is going to be, but we know that when you boost somebody, you elevate your level of protection very high. And we are hoping — and, I think, with good reason to feel good — that there will be some degree of protection. Therefore, as we said, if you’re unvaccinated, get vaccinated. And if you’re vaccinated, get boosted.”
“The reason why it’s become the dominant strain in South Africa is because there are such high numbers of unvaccinated individuals,” said Dr. Chirag Patel, with UF Health Jacksonville. “In other regions locally to South Africa that have high vaccination rates, you’re not seeing it run as rampant. That in itself tells me that the vaccines should have some good protection against omicron.”
That’s one reason why the White House is emphasizing this new variant is cause for concern not for panic.
There are still 47 million people unvaccinated in the U.S., and only about 20% of people eligible to get a booster have received one.
Several community centers in Jacksonville are offering the shots seven days a week.