WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is racing to show the country that his administration is prepared for the omicron variant even though scientists have yet to determine how dangerous it could be, saying that he’s “sparing no effort and removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe.”
“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” he said from the White House.
Much about omicron, which was first identified in South Africa last week, remains unclear. Although some scientist fear it could prove highly contagious or evade protection from vaccines that have already been developed, public health officials said it could take two weeks to develop clearer answers to those questions.
Biden said his administration is already working with pharmaceutical companies to formulate updated vaccines if necessary. However, he emphasized, “we do not yet believe that additional measures will be needed,” adding that he has no plans for new restrictions on travel or businesses.
Omicron cases have already been detected in several countries, including Britain and Canada, and Biden said he expects it to reach the United States as well.
“Sooner or later, we’re going to see cases of this new variant here,” he said. “We’ll have to face this new threat just like we’ve faced those that have come before it.”
The swiftness of Biden’s public response to omicron — which he mispronounced as “omnicron” several times — reflects the potential danger posed by the variant to the country and to his administration, which has already struggled to bring the lingering pandemic to a close.
The president received a briefing from his COVID-19 team, his second in two days, before speaking publicly Monday. Later in the week, he’s expected to visit the National Institutes of Health, headquartered just outside Washington.
“The challenge is in conveying uncertainty in unanswered questions without engendering panic among policymakers,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “That is a very nuanced and difficult message to convey.”
He criticized the administration for announcing a ban on international visitors from South Africa and other nations in the region, describing the policy “as porous, ineffectual and punishing towards countries that were adept at identifying and alerting the world to this variant.”