President Joe Biden and his family attended mass during his holiday on Nantucket in Rhode Island after being 'fully briefed' on the Omicron variant of the coronavirus and enacting an African travel ban to protect against it.
The White House said that Biden has been 'fully briefed' on Omicron as fears rise over the new super mutant variant - and the president's top health expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said he 'wouldn't be surprised' if the strain was already in the U.S.
The president was joined by his son Hunter and three of his grandchildren, including Hunter's infant son Beau, named for the president's late eldest son. President Biden and one of his granddaughters, Finnegan, were greeted by Father John Murray for mass at St. Mary Our Lady of the Isle Catholic Church.
Earlier Saturday, the president and first lady Jill Biden were joined for lunch by Hunter, Hunter's wife Melissa, daughters Ashley and Naomi, granddaughters Finnegan, Maisy and Natalie, grandson Hunter, and Hunter and Melissa's new baby Beau Biden, as well as Peter Neal, Naomi's fiancé.
Biden has been slammed for still allowing flights from South Africa to land in the U.S. as tension builds amid the new variant, but senior health officials and the Covid response team, including Fauci, have reportedly been monitoring the latest updates on Omicron and are in regular touch with health officials around the world.
Vice President Kamala Harris called the travel ban 'necessary' during an appearance in downtown Washington Saturday, as part of the annual Small Business Saturday that takes place every year after Black Friday.
When asked about any further travel restrictions, Harris paused and said: 'We'll take it one step at a time, but as of now, we've done what we believe is necessary.'
President Joe Biden headding to a toggery shop on Nantucket on his way to mass Saturday
Biden attended mass at St. Mary, Our Lady of the Isle Catholic Church
Biden and his family greet the priest at St. Mary
Biden spent time with his granddaughter Finnegan (pictured right), his son Hunter's daughter
Granddaughter Natalie (pictured left), Biden's late son Beau's daughter, joined the president and Finnegan at church
Biden, walking down Main Street in Nantucket with his granddaughters, has been 'fully briefed' on the Omicron variant
Biden, only America's second Catholic president, attends mass regularly
President Biden and Finnegan were greeted by Father John Murray for mass
Biden is often seen with at least one of his seven grandchildren on his weekends away from the White House
Biden has been slammed for still allowing flights from South Africa to land in the US after enacting the ban
President Biden also walked down the vacation go-to island's main street
The president's son Hunter also took in the sights on Main Street with his son Beau, named for his late brother
Biden, walking Main Street with Natalie and Finnegan, has his COVID response team led by Dr Anthony Fauci keeping him up to date on the virus
Biden and granddaughter Finnegan pass by a Christmas tree on Nantucket
Biden departing St. Mary, Our Lady of the Isle Church following mass
Biden, Finnegan and other family members leaving church Saturday evening
The Secret Service escorted the first family away from St. Mary
Hunter and Natalie flank the Biden patriarch on the way out of mass
'I have been briefed,' Harris added. 'As the president has said, we're gonna take every precaution and that's why we've taken the measures we have.'
Israel on Saturday said it would ban the entry of all foreigners into the country and reintroduce counter-terrorism phone-tracking technology in order to contain the spread of a new and potentially more contagious coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement that the ban, pending government approval, would last 14 days. Israel, the first country to shut its borders completely over the Omicron variant, has so far confirmed one case of the variant and seven other suspected cases.
Meanwhile, a South African doctor is offering some early information about the symptoms sufferers of the Omicron variant have, calling them 'mild but unsual.'
Dr. Angelique Coetzee, a board member of the South African Medical Association, first saw otherwise healthy patients demonstrating these symptoms beginning November 18 and flagged it as a possible variant.
'It presents mild disease with symptoms being sore muscles and tiredness for a day or two not feeling well,' Coetzee said. 'So far, we have detected that those infected do not suffer the loss of taste or smell. They might have a slight cough. There are no prominent symptoms. Of those infected some are currently being treated at home.'
Coetzee said around two dozen of her patients that tested positive for the coronavirus displayed these new symptoms.
Vice President Kamala Harris spoke about the African travel ban at a Small Business Saturday event in Washington
Vice President Harris attended the event with Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff
Harris and Emhoff spent the day supporting various small businesses as part of the Thanksgiving weekend tradition
Dr. Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who first alerted authorities to the presence of the Omicron variant
Most of those displaying symptoms were men said they were 'feeling so tired,' and half of them were unvaccinated. The patients comprised a range of ages and ethnicities.
At the same time, a flight from Johannesburg landed at Newark airport Saturday morning - one of the last before Biden's travel ban goes into effect on Monday.
According to Flight Aware, there are two more direct flights Saturday from South Africa slated to land in the US - one flight will arrive at Newark, New Jersey, and the other will arrive in Atlanta, Georgia.
Eight flights are also scheduled to depart South Africa for New York on Sunday before travelers from eight African countries - South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi - are not allowed into the country.
Meanwhile, one-in-ten passengers who landed in Holland from Johannesburg tested positive for Covid, although it was unclear which were infected with the Omicron strain.
The Dutch health ministry said Saturday that at least 61 new cases of Covid entered the Netherlands from South Africa, leading Dr Anthony Fauci to sound the alarm about the dangers Omicron poses to Covid-weary US residents.
When asked if he thinks Omicron is already in the US while on the Today Show Saturday morning, Fauci replied: 'I would not be surprised if it is.
'We have not detected it yet but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you're already having travel-related cases...it almost invariably is ultimately going to go all over.'
'You have to be careful and assume that that's the case,' he added, noting that Omicron could possibly 'evade' vaccinations.
He also showed concerns about 'transmissibility' as Biden says US citizens and green card holders from other regions of Africa will still be allowed to travel to the US.
Dr Anthony Fauci said he 'wouldn't be surprised' if it the new Covid variant Omicron was already in US. On the Today Show Saturday morning he said that he's concerned about the 'transmissibility' but there were still a lot of unknowns
How concerned should the U.S. be about the new COVID-19 variant, Omicron? Dr. Anthony Fauci says he "wouldn't be surprised" to find the variant already in the country. pic.twitter.com/Mp13hYxxWW— TODAY (@TODAYshow) November 27, 2021
Cases of Omicron have already been picked up in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium. It is not yet known whether the variant arrived in the Netherlands yesterday but Dutch authorities are sequencing passengers' tests. There are also suspected individual cases being sequenced in Germany, the Czech Republic and Australia
Earlier today United Airlines flight 187 arrived stateside from Johannesburg but it is still unclear if any passengers tested positive for Covid.
The CDC has yet to identify any cases of the new Covid strain in the US but the UK has said two people have been diagnosed with the Omicron variant.
'In South Africa - even though the numbers are relatively small - its ability to infect people who have recovered from infection, and even people who have been vaccinated, make us say: 'This is something you gotta pay really close attention to. And be prepared for something that's serious,'' Fauci said.
'It may not turn out that way but you really want to be ahead of it, and that's the reason why we're doing what we're doing.'
Biden has said the pandemic will not end until global vaccinations are in place.
On Friday, Biden announced a ban on travel from eight southern African countries in response to Omicron - hours after his chief scientific advisor suggested the move was unlikely, and despite Biden himself declaring last year that 'banning travel will not stop it'.
Fauci said on his Today Show segment this morning that 'blocking travel from a given country is to just give us time to assess it better'. He made the comment only a few hours before Biden announced his decision the chief scientist said he thought a ban was unlikely.
He also noted that the travel bans are 'not any reason to panic' but added: 'It has a large number of mutations, particularly in that area of the virus that relates to its ability to bind to the cells in your nasal pharynx and in your lung.'
The president implemented the bans while spending Thanksgiving in Nantucket for a break with his family.
He made the decision to halt flights from Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi as of Monday after a 30-minute conversation with Fauci and his team.
He told reporters that US citizens and green card holders will still be able to travel into the country from the banned regions but no one else will be allowed.
The decision came after the UK and Israel halted travel on Thursday and the EU followed suit.
Bradley Field (left) and Benjamin Field (right) arrived from Johannesburg, South Africa this morning on United Airlines flight 187
Benjamin Field hugged his father upon arriving at Newark International Airport, New Jersey from OR Tambo International Airport in South Africa
Other passengers from flight UA187 - one of the last flights before Biden's travel ban comes into effect - deplaned at Newark International Airport Saturday morning
Long queues formed at the New Jersey airport as Biden's impending travel ban will forbid travel from regions in South Africa, which include Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi
The following day New York Governor Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency as Covid transmission reached rates not seen since April 2020.
Hochul insisted that the troubling new variant of Covid that first emerged in Botswana is 'coming'.
Her warning came as a leading epidemiologist told DailyMail.com the new strain was deeply troubling, urging tougher travel restrictions and saying the virus could spark 'pandemic 2.0'.
Fauci told the Today Show that there are still a lot of unknowns and a question he is trying to answer is if an infection by the Omicron variant is more serious than an infection by the Delta variant.
'Are the antibodies that are induced by the vaccines that we are using - do they protect against this?' he also noted he was wondering.
Speaking to CNN yesterday, Fauci said that he was 'in very active communication with South African colleagues'.
South African experts yesterday also attempted to calm the wave of panic over the variant, describing it as a 'storm in a tea cup'.
In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has implemented new Covid restrictions in response to the 'monstrous' new Omicron variant after placing seven countries in southern Africa on a red list - from which all travelers must go into hotel quarantine.
All passengers arriving to the UK must take a PCR test on day two after landing and isolate at home until they get the result and all contacts of someone infected with Omicron variant must isolate for 10 days.
Flanked by Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance during a press conference on Saturday, the Prime Minister also announced that the rules on face masks in public spaces will be tightened.
President Biden spoke with reporters in Nantucket, where he celebrated Thanksgiving with his family, and said that he decided on the ban out of an abundance of caution
Boris Johnson speaks during a press conference after cases of the new variant were confirmed in the United Kingdom
In an address to the nation, Mr Johnson warned that Omicron 'diverges quite significantly from other configurations of the virus' and warned it will 'reduce the protections of our vaccines over time'.
Four more countries – Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola – will also be added to the no-fly list on Sunday. All flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia were banned yesterday amid growing international panic about the 'variant of concern,' which scientists believe is more transmissible and has an increased risk of reinfection.
Earlier today, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said that two cases of the strain were detected in Nottingham and Brentwood in Essex and confirmed that both were linked to travel to southern Africa.
The infected individuals and all members of their households have been told to self-isolate after the UK Health Security Agency confirmed the sequencing.
Meanwhile near Amsterdam, around 600 passengers arrived on two planes in Schipol Airport from Johannesburg - the epicenter for the new strain that experts fear is 40 percent more vaccine evasive than Delta - hours after travel bans were put in place.
The Dutch government banned all air travel from southern Africa early on Friday. Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said that passengers already en route to the Netherlands would have to undergo testing and quarantine upon arrival.
Europe's first case of the variant was spotted in Belgium on Friday - despite the unvaccinated woman who caught it having travelled to Turkey and Egypt, not South Africa where the strain emerged.
Germany and the Czech Republic both confirmed suspected cases today. Germany's initial sequencing suggested a traveler from South Africa was carrying the virus with several mutations shared by Omicron. Officials are awaiting full sequencing later today.
And Australian authorities - who also banned travel to nine countries in the region - fear the variant may have already entered the country.
Passengers waited on their Covid test results at Schiphol Airport, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands last night
Passengers from KLM flight KL598 from Cape Town, South Africa wait to be screened at Amsterdam Airport, the Netherlands, yesterday
What do we know about the Omicron variant?
Scientists have said they are concerned about the B.1.1.529 variant, named by the World Health Organisation as Omicron, as it has around 30 different mutations - double the amount present in the Delta variant. The mutations contain features seen in all of the other variants but also traits that have not been seen before.
UK scientists first became aware of the new strain on November 23 after samples were uploaded on to a coronavirus variant tracking website from South Africa, Hong Kong and then Botswana.
On Friday, it was confirmed that cases had been identified in Israel and Belgium but currently there are no known cases in the UK.
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI), told Good Morning Britain on Friday that sequencing is being carried out around the UK to determine if any cases have already been imported.
Work is also under way to see whether the new variant may be causing new infection in people who have already had coronavirus or a vaccine, or whether waning immunity may be playing a role.
Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxford, has said the new variant will 'almost certainly' make vaccines less effective, though they would still offer protection.
Pfizer/BioNTech, which has produced a vaccine against Covid-19, is already studying the new variant's ability to evade vaccines.
South Africa recorded 2,828 new Covid cases yesterday - more than double the 1,374 recorded last Thursday. But infection levels have yet to skyrocket in the country and no hospitalizations with the new variant have occurred so far.
However, Botswana does have four confirmed Omicron cases and South Africa has 77 - with the real figure likely in the hundreds - and Hong Kong has two, meaning 83 cases of the variant are confirmed so far.
It has also been found in Israel, Hong Kong and Belgium, and is worrying scientists because it appears to be able to easily reinfect those who have already been infected, or who have had the vaccine.
Fauci concluded on the Today Show by saying that the new strain is another reason 'it is absolutely essential that unvaccinated people get vaccinated and that vaccinated people get boosters'.
As of Friday at 5am EST, the CDC website's travel advice page for South Africa had the country listed as 'Level 4: Very High Level of Covid-19,' with flights to the US permitted from the African country since November 8.
The levels range from Level unknown, Level 1: Low, Level 2: Moderate, Level 3: High and Level 4: Very High.
The CDC had the country listed as Level 1 on Monday.
The page also asks anyone traveling to and from South Africa to be fully vaccinated, or for those who are not to be tested for Covid. It also recommends travelers follow measures that are in-place in South Africa, including wearing a mask and social distancing.
The US Embassy issued a Covid-19 update on their website Saturday and alerted that the US Department of State announced that travel to South Africa had also advanced to 'Level 4 - Do Not Travel - due to the newly identified Covid-19 Omicron variant'.
The statement added: 'US citizens and Legal Permanent Residents (LPRs) who are eligible to travel but are not fully vaccinated will need to provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test one (1) day before their flight. US citizens and LPRs who are fully vaccinated will need to present airlines with proof of vaccination and of a negative Covid-19 test three (3) days before their flight.'
South Africa's infection rate spiked 93 percent in a day yesterday amid fears the strain is driving the surge. Local scientists say it has likely spread to all the country's nine provinces, but there is yet to be a surge in hospitalizations in the virus epicenter Johannesburg.
Travelers from South Africa have been allowed entry into the US since November 8, when restrictions barring entry to people from more than 30 countries - implemented at the start of the pandemic - were partially lifted.
Newer rules, which came 19 months after the travel ban was implemented, require international visitors to show both proof of vaccination and a negative Covid test.
Was new Covid variant named Omicron to avoid angering Beijing? WHO chose to skip TWO letters of Greek alphabet to avoid 'Xi' which has written similarity to Chinese president Xi Jinping
The relationship between China and the World Health Organization has come under renewed scrutiny after the UN body appeared to skip over the Greek letter 'Xi' and call the new Covid variant 'Omicron' instead.
Last night the WHO sparked criticism from China hawks after it named the mutation 'Omicron' instead of 'Nu' or 'Xi'.
The UN body has been using Greek letters such as 'Alpha', 'Beta' and 'Delta' to describe the variants, saying on its website it would 'be easier and more practical to be discussed by non-scientific audiences'.
However, its decision to name the variant from southern Africa 'Omicron' has sparked speculation that the WHO deliberately skipped over 'Xi' to avoid angering the President of China, Xi Jinping.
President Xi is alleged to have significant influence over WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a former Ethiopian minister whose country has been a major recipient of Chinese investment.
Tedros has been accused of using his role to make further appointments that were preferable to Beijing, including making Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe a goodwill ambassador.
The Chinese government has been accused of using an 'aggressive' influence campaign on the WHO's response to the initial Covid outbreak which led to it missing its chance to stop the pandemic. It is also alleged that the UN body's independence was eroded prior to the global spread of the virus in early 2020.
Donald Trump Jr wrote on Twitter: 'As far as I'm concerned the original will always be the Xi variant.'
Donald Trump Jr tweeted: 'As far as I'm concerned the original will always be the Xi variant'
President Xi is alleged to have significant influence over WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a former Ethiopian minister whose country has been a major recipient of Chinese investment
The relationship between China and the World Health Organization has come under further scrutiny after the UN body appeared to skip over the Greek letter 'Xi' and call the new Covid variant 'Omicron' instead
And Republican Senator Ted Cruz retweeted a Telegraph editor who cited a WHO source saying Xi was skipped to 'avoid stigmatizing a region'.
'If the WHO is this scared of the Chinese Communist Party, how can they be trusted to call them out next time they're trying to cover up a catastrophic global pandemic?' Mr Cruz said.
Wall Street Journal columnist Ben Zimmer suggested: 'Kudos to the WHO for skipping over the potentially confusing Nu and Xi names and going straight to Omicron.'
A WHO spokesman told The New York Post that it avoided 'Nu' because it feared 'people would think it was the new variant, rather than a name'.
They added: 'And Xi because it's a common surname and we have agreed [to] naming rules that avoid using place names, people's names, animal, etc. to avoid stigma.'
Earlier this year, an investigation by The Sunday Times revealed efforts by Beijing to control the WHO's decision making, sabotage investigations and even install officials.
The newspaper claims the WHO failed to publicly challenge Chinese misinformation, delayed declaring an international emergency, and discouraged governments from placing travel bans on China to protect its economy.
It has also been suggested officials agreed a 'backroom deal' with the Chinese to water down the inquiry into the origins of Covid-19.
This meant steering scientists away from the theory coronavirus actually escaped from a Wuhan laboratory, rather than coming from wild animals in a wet market in the city in December 2019.
The theory was initially dismissed as 'extremely unlikely' by the WHO but now experts say there might have been 'human error' at the lab.
Central to the paper's claims is that close ties between the WHO's leadership and China had impacted on its ability to challenge the country over the emergence of the virus.
It is suggested China has for some time been using financial leverage over poorer nations to install its preferred figures into key roles at the WHO as well as other UN-governed bodies.
Chief among the decision makers at the WHO is Tedros, who is a long-time friend of China. He visited President Xi in January 2020, two months before the pandemic began.
Between 2000 and 2012, there were around 130 official Chinese finance projects in Zimbabwe, with some totalling hundreds of million of pounds to build hydroelectric dams and provide agricultural machinery.
In June last year, Zimbabwe was one of 53 countries to back the Hong Kong national security law at the United Nations, derided by Western nations as a clampdown on protestors and free speech by China.
Professor Richard Ebright, a fellow of America's Infectious Disease Society, told the Times that China's efforts had a 'decisive role' in affecting the agency's failure to act.
An investigation has claimed that China used 'aggressive' influence on the World Health Organization to control decision making, sabotage investigations and even install preferred officials in the run up to the coronavirus pandemic
While China has tried to insist the virus originated elsewhere, academics, politicians and the media have begun to contemplate the possibility it leaked from a high-level biochemical lab in Wuhan - raising suspicions that Chinese officials simply hid evidence of the early spread
'There was no scientific or medical or policy justification for the stance that the WHO took in January and February of 2020. That was entirely premised on maintaining satisfactory ties to the Chinese government,' he said.
'Through that process, the WHO actively resisted and obstructed efforts by other nations to implement effective border controls that could have limited the spread, or even contained the spread of the outbreak.'
The support for Tedros especially had a 'remarkably high return on the investment' compared to the funds and influence used to help him get elected.
A spokesperson for the organization hit back at the claims, saying: 'WHO's top priority is ending the acute stage of the Covid-19 pandemic.'
They later added: 'The Sunday Times piece is riddled with inaccuracies, falsehoods, half-truths, unsubstantiated assertions, willful distortions and the intentional omission of anything that didn't fit the pre-determined premise of the story.
'There have been several independent reviews of the global response to Covid-19, including the work of WHO, and these reviews note the work of the organization and the early warnings we issued.
'Frankly, WHO's top priority is ending the acute stage of the Covid-19 pandemic and we are supporting countries to implement comprehensive, evidence-based responses, based on the consistent use of public health measures and the equitable use of life-saving tools including vaccines.
'In particular, we are working to enable all countries to vaccinate health workers, older people and other vulnerable groups, at a time when 75 per cent of vaccinations have taken place in only 10 countries.'