US braces for omicron to hit

The United States is bracing for the impact of the omicron variant of coronavirus, which has yet to be detected in the nation but is seen as an inevitability.

Much is still unknown about the new variant, and experts say it could be about two weeks before data can be gathered on factors like its transmissibility, severity and to what extent it evades the protection of the current vaccines.  

But there are steps that can be taken in the meantime, ranging from getting more people vaccinated and boosted, both in the U.S. and globally, to improving surveillance to detect the new variant and distributing new antiviral treatments.   

Most of all, experts stress that getting unvaccinated people vaccinated is the most important step that can be taken to protect a nation in which 18 percent of U.S. adults still do not have any shots of vaccine.

It is extremely unlikely that the omicron variant will render the current vaccines totally useless, experts say, so vaccines are still the best defense.

Booster shots can help build up immune defenses even more to help protect against the variant. All U.S. adults 18 and over are now eligible for a booster, but data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows 80 percent of fully vaccinated people have not received one yet. The agency on Monday strengthened its recommendation to say all adults “should” get a booster.

President Biden stressed vaccinations and boosters as the main response to the variant in an address on Monday, where he said he is keeping lockdowns off the table “for now.”

“If you are vaccinated but still worried about the new variant, get your booster,” Biden said. “If you aren’t vaccinated, get that shot, go get that first shot.”

The president called on individuals to wear masks “indoors in public settings around other people” but did not issue a call for states and localities to reimpose mask mandates that many have shed in recent months.  

Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases expert at the University of California, San Francisco, said vaccinations are “the main strategy to fight this.”

“I see no other strategy,” she said. “I was very glad [Biden] didn’t mention school closures or lockdowns.”

Depending on what the data shows on effectiveness of the current vaccines, a modified vaccine specifically designed to fight omicron could be needed.  

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told CNBC that the company already started work on a modified vaccine on Friday, in case it is needed, and could have it ready in less than 100 days.  

Challenges remain for the nation to produce enough doses of a new vaccine. Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said on CNBC that the company faces a choice about when to change over to manufacturing doses of a new vaccine.  

“When do you decide to switch?” he said. “Because today we’re making the current vaccine because many countries still want it.”

It is not just the United States that needs vaccines, though. Experts have been pushing wealthy countries like the U.S. to do more for months to help vaccinate the world, noting that when large swaths of the globe remain unvaccinated it provides breeding grounds for new variants like omicron to form.

“These types of new variants are exactly what we should expect over time when we are not seriously trying to vaccinate the world,” said Krishna Udayakumar, director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.  

Many advocates and experts have been pushing the Biden administration for months to use authorities under the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to compel vaccine makers to share their know-how with other countries to boost vaccine production. Drug companies have argued that move is not feasible and could even cause shortages in crucial raw materials for the vaccine.  

White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients did not directly answer a question on using the law last week. “We’re continuing to work with Moderna on how they can do more and more for the world,” he said.  

In Congress, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) led 116 Democratic lawmakers in August in calling for $34 billion for global vaccine manufacturing and distribution in Biden’s Build Back Better package that passed the House this month.  

“I urge my colleagues in the Senate to aggressively increase the funding allocated to vaccine aid to meet the challenges before us,” he said on Friday after news of the new variant broke.

In addition to offering people protection through vaccines, there is also the question of identifying and tracking the variant, which requires surveillance systems to sequence the virus.  

Ben Wakana, a member of the White House COVID-19 response team, tweeted that U.S. sequencing abilities have increased from 8,000 tests per week in February to 80,000 tests per week.  

Still, some experts say there is room for improvement. Udayakumar said the lack of any omicron cases detected in the U.S. so far “probably speaks more to our surveillance system” than to there actually being zero cases in the country.

A Washington Post analysis found the U.S. is sequencing 3.6 percent of its coronavirus cases, making it 20th in the world.  

New treatments can also help soften the blow. Pfizer applied this month for Food and Drug Administration authorization for a pill, called Paxlovid, that was shown to reduce the risk for hospitalization or death from COVID-19 by 89 percent.  

“That’s a big difference between now and a year ago,” Sten Vermund, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health, said of the treatments.  

Bourla told CNBC he has a “high level of confidence” the effectiveness of the pill will not be diminished by the new variant.  

Supply could also be a constraint, though Bourla said the company now expects to be able to produce 80 million courses next year, up from 50 million.  

If a new vaccine targeted at the variant is needed, supply problems for vaccines could worsen as well if rich countries hoard shots again.  

“If new vaccines are needed, I worry we’ll have the same patterns on inequity play out again,” Udayakumar said. 

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Jeff Zients Joe Biden Omricon Raja Krishnamoorthi
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