Evidence “strongly” suggests that the new omicron coronavirus variant has an advantage in transmissibility over other variants and that it may also evade immune protection, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Sunday, while urging people to get vaccinated before there are documented cases of the variant in the U.S.
“This is a clarion call as far as I’m concerned of saying, let’s put aside all of these differences that we have and say, if you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated. If you’re fully vaccinated, get boosted, and get the children vaccinated also,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that, though there is still much that is unknown about omicron, vaccines offer a proven level of protection.
“It may not be as good in protecting against initial infection, but it has a very important impact on diminishing the likelihood that you’re going to get a severe outcome from it,” he said.
National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, in an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” said it will likely take two to three weeks of laboratory and field studies for scientists to know whether the variant is able to evade the current COVID-19 vaccines. Like Fauci, he encouraged Americans to get vaccinated, because current evidence shows the shots offer sufficient protection.
“Especially the boosters will give that additional layer of protection because there’s something about the booster that causes your immune system to really expand its capacity against all kinds of different spike proteins, even ones it hasn’t seen before,” he said.
The omicron variant, first detected in southern Africa, has been found in a growing number of countries including, as of Sunday, England, Israel, Belgium, Hong Kong, Germany, Italy, Australia and the Netherlands.
In an interview on Saturday, Fauci said he “would not be surprised” if the variant was already in the U.S. In another interview on Sunday, he said, “Inevitably, it will be here.”
As Fauci explained, omicron is likely more transmissible than other variants because it has at least 32 mutations on the spike protein, which is the part of the virus that binds to a human cell and infects it.
“The profile of the mutations strongly suggest that it’s going to have an advantage in transmissibility and that it might evade immune protection that you would get, for example, from the monoclonal antibody or from the convalescent serum after a person’s been infected and possibly even against some of the vaccine-induced antibodies,” he said.
The recent surge in COVID-19 cases in South Africa, he said, is also an indicator of its ability to spread rapidly.
“When you look in South Africa, you were having a low level of infection. And then all of a sudden, there was this big spike. And when the South Africans looked at it, they said, ‘Oh my goodness. This is a different virus than we’ve been dealing with,’” Fauci said on “Meet the Press.”
South African health officials have said that the new variant is likely responsible for as many as 90% of the country’s new cases, with early studies showing that every person infected by it is likely to spread it to two other people.
“So it clearly ... has the capability of transmitting rapidly,” Fauci said. “That’s the thing that’s causing us now to be concerned, but also to put the pressure on ourselves now to do something about our preparation for this.”
The White House on Friday announced that it will bar travel from South Africa and seven other African countries beginning on Monday. President Joe Biden on Sunday planned to meet with Fauci and other members of his COVID-19 response team to discuss the administration’s response.
Fauci said on “Meet The Press” that pausing travel to and from African countries where the variant has been detected should be used as an opportunity for Americans to get fully vaccinated and up to date with their boosters in preparation for the variant’s extremely likely spread in the United States.
“So don’t let this decision that was made about blocking the travel from certain countries go without a positive effect,” he said. “And the positive effect is to get us better prepared, to rev up on the vaccination, to be really ready for something that may not actually be a big deal, but we want to make sure that we’re prepared for the worst.”