There are no reported cases of the coronavirus omicron variant in the United States yet, said the Centers for Disease Control in this statement released Friday night.
But Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to President Biden, said “anything is possible” and he would “not be surprised” if the omicron variant is already in the U.S.
“There’s no indication that it is right now,” Fauci told CNN. But — “There’s a lot of travel,” in and out of South Africa and the countries that surround it, he said. And —
“I would not be surprised if it is,” he told the Today show. “We have not detected it yet, but … when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over.”
The omicron variant was first reported by the World Health Organization in South Africa and neighboring Botswana.
However, by Saturday morning, omicron cases have now been confirmed in the United Kingdom, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel, according to the Associated Press and New York Times. In the two cases in the United Kingdom, people had traveled recently to southern Africa. With regards to the other cases, people had traveled recently, but not to southern Africa.
There have been many mutations of coronavirus since the pandemic first began, but scientists flagged omicron as a “variant of concern” for three main reasons: It may be able to spread more quickly; it may bring an increased risk of reinfection and it may evade protection given by vaccines, said the World Health Organization in this statement released Friday.
South African health officials first reported the new omicron variant to the WHO Nov. 24, and the WHO labeled omicron a “variant of concern,” as they did with the Delta variant which brought about a U.S. surge this past summer.
“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” said the WHO. “Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other variants of concern. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa … This variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage.”
Dr. Fauci echoed what the WHO said.
“It has some mutations that are raising some concern particularly with regard to possibly transmission increase,” Dr. Fauci told CNN Saturday morning. “We don’t know that for sure right now; this is something that’s in motion.”
He said U.S. scientists will be talking to South African scientists Saturday morning “to really get the facts, and find out scientist-to-scientist exactly what is going on.”
“The CDC is continuously monitoring variants and the U.S. variant surveillance system has reliably detected new variants in this country. We expect Omicron to be identified quickly, if it emerges in the U.S.,” said the CDC Friday night.
First the European Union, and now the United States and Canada put travel bans in and out of South Africa and seven other neighboring nations. The travel ban begins Monday. It does not apply to returning U.S. citizens or permanent residents, who will continue to be required to test negative before their travel.
However, South Africa’s tourism minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, said the temporary travel bans are “devastating” and suggested her nation, which is heavily reliant on American, Chinese and European tourism, is being punished for being forthcoming about a new variant.
“Perhaps our scientists’ ability to trace some of these variants has been our biggest weakness,” Sisulu said, according to the New York Times. “We’re finding ourselves punished for the work that we do.”
“This will just discourage different countries for sharing information which might be very important for global public health,” said Thierno Balde, a COVID-19 incident manager for the WHO, in that same report.