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White House tells Americans to get booster shot as soon as possible to protect against Omicron

The White House on Sunday called on people to get their booster shots as a matter of urgency, as the new variant Omicron was confirmed to have arrived in North America.

Joe Biden returned from his Thanksgiving break to hold an emergency meeting with his COVID advisors on Sunday evening - with Dr Anthony Fauci sounding a hopeful note, saying he believed 'existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases' from Omicron. 

Two cases of Omicron were confirmed in Canada on Sunday - both in patients in the capital, Ottawa, who had traveled to Nigeria. Nigeria is not on the list of countries affected by Biden's travel ban, announced on Friday. 

Upon returning from Massachusetts, Biden was asked whether he was considering additional travel restrictions.

'I'm having a meeting with my medical team as I get back to the White House. I'll have more to say,' he said.

The White House then issued a photo of Biden sitting in the Oval Office with Fauci, his chief medical advisor; his chief of staff, Ron Klain; Jeff Zients, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator; and two others.  

Joe Biden is seen on Sunday in the Oval Office with his chief of staff, Ron Klain (far right), Anthony Fauci (center) and the White House coronavirus coordinator, Jeff Zients (second from left)

'Following up on the regular briefings he had on COVID while traveling, the President met in person today with his Chief Medical Advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and members of his White House COVID Response Team on the latest developments related to the Omicron variant,' the White House said.

'Dr. Fauci informed @POTUS that while it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity, and other characteristics of the variant, existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases.

'Dr. Fauci also reiterated that boosters for fully vaccinated individuals provide the strongest available protection from COVID. The COVID Response Team's immediate recommendation to all vaccinated adults is to get a booster shot as soon as possible.'

The recommendation to get booster shots comes as Canada confirmed the first North American case of Omicron. 

'Today, the province of Ontario has confirmed two cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in Ottawa, both of which were reported in individuals with recent travel from Nigeria,' said Christine Elliott, deputy premier and minister of health, and Dr. Kieran Moore, chief medical officer of health. 

'Ottawa Public Health is conducting case and contact management and the patients are in isolation.' 

Canada, like the U.S., has banned travel from South Africa - which has the largest number of cases - and seven regional countries.

But Nigeria is not one of the countries on the banned list.

Eric Feigel-Ding, an epidemiologist, told DailyMail.com on Friday that he believed the new variant was 'probably worldwide' already.

A patient in Belgium who tested positive - the first in Europe - had not been in sub Saharan Africa. She had traveled to Egypt via Turkey, and tested positive for Omicron on her return. 

'The best defense against the omicron variant is stopping it at our border,' said Elliott and Moore. 

'In addition to the measures recently announced, we continue to urge the federal government to take the necessary steps to mandate point-of-arrival testing for all travelers irrespective of where they're coming from to further protect against the spread of this new variant.'

The provincial government urged residents to get vaccinated, including with booster doses, and to continue following public health guidance.

'Ontario is prepared and ready to respond to this new variant.'

Canada's health minister said that the swift-identification of the variant showed that their testing system was working.  

'As the monitoring and testing continues with provinces and territories, it is expected that other cases of this variant will be found in Canada,' said Jean-Yves Duclos.

Today it's back to business for the first family - a White House official said earlier on Sunday that Joe Biden will be briefed by his medical advisers on the concerning new COVID Omicron variant

Biden and his family returned to Washington aboard Air Force One on Sunday afternoon after their traditional Thanksgiving holiday in Nantucket

Upon his return to the capital Biden was asked whether he'd consider further travel restrictions besides those imposed on eight African countries over the new variant

'I'm having a meeting with my medical team as I get back to the White House. I'll have more to say,' he replied

'I know that this new variant may seem concerning,' he added, but said existing vaccines and public health measures were helping to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

In a separate statement, the Public Health Agency of Canada said border measures could change as the situation develops.

'The Government of Canada will continue to assess the evolving situation and adjust border measures as required,' it said

Earlier on Sunday the top public health expert in the U.S., Dr Anthony Fauci, warned that a fifth wave could still be coming.

'The fifth wave, or the magnitude of any increase... will really be dependent upon what we do in the new few weeks to a couple months,' Fauci said on CBS's 'Face the Nation' today. 

He urged Americans to get their booster shots, or their initial jabs if they had yet to get vaccinated  - 'if we do that successfully... we can mitigate any increase.'  

The South African doctor who first raised the alarm on the variant revealed that patients did not exhibit telltale symptoms such as loss of taste and smell after contracting the virus, but had high pulse rates, fatigue and muscle aches. 

'We all know when you have a virus that has already gone to multiple countries, inevitably it will be here,' Fauci said on ABC's This Week on Sunday. 

'It has a bunch of mutations,' Fauci said, including, 'a disturbingly large number of mutations in the spike protein, which is the business end of the virus.' 

It's too early to tell whether lockdowns and mandates will be deployed again, he said, but 'you want to be prepared to do anything and everything' to mitigate a resurgence in infection rates.

On NBC's 'Meet the Press,' Fauci said that there is a 'strong indication' that the new variant could be resistant to lab-made monoclonal antibodies and antibodies donated from those who have recovered from the virus and 'possible against even some of the vaccine-induced antibodies.' 

'It's clearly giving the indication it has the capability of transmitting rapidly,' Fauci said. 'That's what's causing us to be concerned.'

Dr. Anthony Fauci (pictured) said Sunday that the new strain of COVID, dubbed a 'variant of concern' last week by the World Health Organization (WHO), will 'inevitably' arrive

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. It was first discovered in Botswana, then spread to South Africa earlier this month

Moderna's Chief Medical Officer Paul Burton said on Sunday that their vaccine could be reformulated against the new variant, but the updated version won't be available for another few months, until the beginning of 2022. 

'We should know about the ability of the current vaccine to provide protection in the next couple of weeks,' he said on BBC's Andrew Marr Show. 

National Institute of Health Director Francis Collins said in an interview with 'Fox News on Sunday' that Omicron had an unprecedented number of mutations - 'like 50 of them and more than 30 of those in the spike protein, which is the part of the virus that attaches to your human cells if you get infected.'

'That is a new record in terms of the number of mutations,' he said. 'It does make you worry, therefore, that it's a sufficiently different virus, that it might not respond as well to protection from the vaccines. But we don't know that.' 

The new strain of COVID was dubbed a 'variant of concern' last week by the World Health Organization (WHO). 

This afternoon, President Joe Biden will have an in-person briefing with members of his COVID-19 response team and Fauci, his Chief Medical Advisor, to provide an update on the Omicron variant and the Administration's response.

Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the FDA, said today on 'Face the Nation' that the variant is 'almost definitely' already in America: 

'Just looking at the number of cases coming off planes this weekend, it's almost a certainty that there some cases that have gotten into the United States.'

Today, flight UA 187 from Johannesburg, South Africa landed at Newark Liberty International Airport ahead of the Biden administration's travel ban, which will go into effect on Monday. 

Biden's travel restrictions do not ban flights or apply to U.S. citizens and lawful U.S. permanent residents. 

However, most non-residents who have been to Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland or Zimbabwe within the last 14 days will not be allowed to enter the country.

On Sunday a flight from Johannesburg, South Africa landed at Newark National Airport ahead of the ban, which will go into effect on Monday. Passengers from the flight are pictured disembarking

Pictured is a quick testing center at Newark Liberty International Airport

President Joe Biden's travel restrictions do not ban flights or apply to U.S. citizens and lawful U.S. permanent residents. However, most non-residents who have been to Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland or Zimbabwe within the last 14 days will not be allowed to enter the country

Rattled by news of the variant, which experts say could be resistant to the COVID vaccine, the stock market had its worst trading day of 2021 for the blue-chip index on Friday.

Midday, the DOW plunged by more than 1,000 points, closing 2.5 percent lower at 34,899. S&P 500 dropped by 2.3 percent and closed at 4,594, its biggest drop since February, and the Nasdaq closed at 15,491, losing 2.2 percent of its value. 

However, Gottlieb addressed fears that the new variant would reverse progress made since the pandemic began, revealing that the CDC will set up a surveillance system specifically for the omicron strain, and is sequencing 100,000 cases per week: 

'We're in a much better place than we were a year ago when B.1.1.7 first arrived or when delta first arrived,' he said. 

Rattled by news of the variant, which experts say could be resistant to the COVID vaccine, the stock market had its worst trading day of 2021 for the blue-chip index on Friday.

The variant was first detected in South Africa by  Dr Angelique Coetzee, who runs a private practice in the South African administrative capital of Pretoria, said she first noticed earlier this month that COVID patients were presenting with a host of odd symptoms. 

The doctor, who has practiced for over 30 years and chairs the South African Medical Association, said that none of the Omicron patients suffered from a loss of taste of smell typically associated with Covid, but instead presented with unusual markers like intense fatigue and a high pulse rate. 

'Their symptoms were so different and so mild from those I had treated before,' Dr Coetzee told The Telegraph. 

She was compelled to inform South Africa's vaccine advisory board on November 18 when she treated a family of four, all of whom were suffering with intense fatigue after testing positive for COVID-19. 

 Dr Coetzee reassured the media that the new symptoms she had observed were 'mild', and that all of the patients she was treating had recovered well. 

'We had one very interesting case, a kid, about six years old, with a temperature and a very high pulse rate, and I wondered if I should admit her,' Dr Coetzee said,

'When I followed up two days later, she was so much better.'

But the doctor also said she was worried the variant could pose a greater danger to the elderly.  

Dr. Angelique Coetzee. The South African doctor who first alerted authorities to the presence of the COVID-19 omicron variant reported that it presents 'unusual but mild' symptoms. Dr. Coetzee, a board member of the South African Medical Association, first noticed otherwise healthy patients demonstrating unusual symptoms on Nov. 18

COVID-19 has infected 48,202,463 people since March of 2020. No cases of the new Omicron variant have been detected within the country

The coronavirus has killed 776,536 people in the US since March of 2020

On Friday, New York Governor Kathy Hochul issued a COVID-19 'disaster emergency' declaration, citing increasing rates of infections and hospitalizations. She did not reference the Omicron variant.   

The United States only lifted the travel curbs on 33 countries including South Africa, China, much of Europe, India, Brazil, Ireland, Britain and Iran on Nov. 8, after blocking the entry of most foreign nationals who had recently been in those countries since beginning in early 2020.

As of Sunday, confirmed and suspected COVID-19 cases caused by the new variant have been detected in a growing number of regions, including Britain, Belgium, Botswana, Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, Israel and the Czech Republic - and now Canada. 

The majority of those infected had recently traveled to affected African countries, according to the Washington Post. 

Austria also joined the growing list of countries where the variant has been reported, detecting its first suspected case of the new variant in the Tirol region, Reuters reported Sunday, citing Austrian officials.

A health staff member prepares a COVID-19 test at Sydney International Airport on November 28, 2021 in Sydney, Australia. NSW Health authorities will now send people who have been overseas in the two weeks before their arrival into three days of home quarantine, as the state works out its response to the threat posed by a new, 'concerning' variant of COVID-19 named Omicron

 Omicron is potentially more contagious than previous variants, although experts do not yet know if it will cause more or less severe Covid-19 compared to other strains (a man undergoes a Covid test in Sydney International Airport this morning)

When asked by today whether this new variant of COVID was 'more severe' than its predecessors, Fauci said that US scientists met with counterparts in South Africa on Friday and plan to do so again today 'to try and find out of the cases they have identified that clearly are caused by this variant, what is the level of severity in that.' 

'Hopefully, it will be light,' he said. 

Biden called on nations meeting at the World Trade Organization next week to waive intellectual property (IP) protections for COVID-19 vaccines in the wake of the new variant.

'The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations,' Biden said in a statement.

However, the WTO meeting was postponed because concerns about the variant, sources told Reuters, potentially making the already slow and uncertain process of intellectual property waivers even more so.

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. It was first discovered in South Africa earlier this month

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.  

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (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. 

The discovery of the new variant has prompted several other countries to reinforce COVID restrictions and impose stringent border controls in an attempt to contain the spread. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday imposed isolation for all UK arrivals pending PCR test results and mandatory masks in shops and on trains, and placed a host of countries on the 'red list' for travel restrictions.

Switzerland has said that only Swiss nationals and permanent residents can enter, but a pre-departure negative test must be proven alongside a 10-day mandatory quarantine, while Spain has also announced a ban on unvaccinated Britons after neighbor Portugal said it would demand proof of a negative coronavirus test to let even the double-jabbed enter the country. 

Health authorities in Australia's New South Wales meanwhile will send people who have been overseas in the two weeks before their arrival into three days of home quarantine, after two fully-vaccinated, asymptomatic passengers from southern Africa flying into Sydney from Doha, Qatar on Saturday evening tested positive for the variant.

Nicole A. Errett, a professor at the University of Washington who has done research on public health emergency preparedness, told the Washington Post that the travel ban was probably issued too late to stop the variant from reaching the US.

'By the time we have enough information to institute a travel ban, the cat's already out of the bag, so to speak,' Errett said. 

'Omicron has already been detected in other continents. 

'A travel ban could in theory buy some time by reducing the spread of new seed cases, but we are talking on the order of days to weeks.' 

Fauci admitted on 'Meet the Press' that we 'certainly are not going to eradicate' COVID-19 entirely on the broadcast, but will hopefully 'get a level of control that's low enough that doesn't interfere with our function.'

'It doesn't have a major impact on society and what we do, but it's not going to go away.' 

Why is Omicron so scary?

 What is so concerning about the variant?

Experts say it is the 'worst variant they have ever seen' and are alarmed by the number of mutations it carries.

The variant — which the World Health Organization has named Omicron — has 32 mutations on the spike protein — the most ever recorded and twice as many as the currently dominant Delta strain. 

Experts fear the changes could make the vaccines 40 per cent less effective in a best-case scenario.

The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognise the version of the spike from older versions of the virus.

The Botswana variant has around 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein. The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognize the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But the mutations may make the spike protein look so different that the body's immune system struggles to recognize it and fight it off. And three of the spike mutations (H665Y, N679K, P681H) help it enter the body's cells more easily. Meanwhile, it is missing a membrane protein (NSP6) which was seen in earlier iterations of the virus, which experts think could make it more infectious. And it has two mutations (R203K and G204R) that have been present in all variants of concern so far and have been linked with infectiousness 

But because the spike protein looks so different on the new strain, the body's immune system may struggle to recognise it and fight it off.

It also includes mutations found on the Delta variant that allow it to spread more easily.

Experts warn they won't know how much more infectious the virus is for at least two weeks and may not know its impact on Covid hospitalizations and deaths for up to six weeks. 

What mutations does the variant have? 

The Botswana variant has more than 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein.

It carries mutations P681H and N679K which are 'rarely seen together' and could make it yet more jab resistant.

These two mutations, along with H655Y, may also make it easier for the virus to sneak into the body's cells.

And the mutation N501Y may make the strain more transmissible and was previously seen on the Kent 'Alpha' variant and Beta among others.

Two other mutations (R203K and G204R) could make the virus more infectious, while a mutation that is missing from this variant (NSP6) could increase its transmissibility.  

It also carries mutations K417N and E484A that are similar to those on the South African 'Beta' variant that made it better able to dodge vaccines.

But it also has the N440K, found on Delta, and S477N, on the New York variant — which was linked with a surge of cases in the state in March — that has been linked to antibody escape. 

Other mutations it has include G446S, T478K, Q493K, G496S, Q498R and Y505H, although their significance is not yet clear. 

Is it a variant of concern?

The World Health Organization has classified the virus as a ‘variant of concern’, the label given to the highest-risk strains.

This means WHO experts have concluded its mutations allow it to spread faster, cause more severe illness or hamper the protection from vaccines.

Where has the variant been detected so far? 

The variant has so far been spotted in five nations: South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium. 

Most cases have been spotted in Gauteng, a province in north east South Africa where Johannesburg is based.

The first case was uploaded to international variant database GISAID by Hong Kong and was spotted in someone who travelled to the country from South Africa.

No cases have been seen in the UK. But scientists do not sequence every positive Covid sample in the UK and not everyone who catches the virus will take a test.

This means there could be people infected with the variant in Britain.

What is the UK doing about the variant?

The Health Secretary announced last night six countries would be added to the red list from midday on Friday November 26.

The red-listed countries are: South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe. This means all direct flights from these countries to the UK are banned.

Anyone arriving in England between midday today and 4am on Sunday from these countries — or who has been in the countries in the 10 previous days — must complete a passenger locator form, quarantine at home and should take a PCR test.

Anyone arriving from these countries after 4am on Sunday must stay in a managed quarantine hotel for 10 days and take a Covid test on or before the second day of their stay, as well as another test on or after day eight.

And the UK Health Security Agency classified B.1.1.529 as a Variant Under Investigation, which means it has worrying mutations.

Experts will now conduct a risk assessment and may increase its ranking to Variant of Concern if it is confirmed to be more infectious, cause more severe illness or make vaccines and medicines less effective. 

The first case was uploaded to international variant database GISAID by Hong Kong on November 23. The person carrying the new variant was traveling to the country from South Africa.

The UK was the first country to identify that the virus could be a threat and alerted other nations. 

Since then, 77 cases have been confirmed in South Africa, two in Hong Kong and three in Botswana.

Health chiefs in Israel today announced it had one confirmed and two suspected B.1.1.529 cases, while there are two suspected cases in Belgium.

Experts believe the strain may have originated in Botswana, but continental Africa does not sequence many positive samples, so it may never be known where the variant first emerged.

Professor Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, told MailOnline the virus likely emerged in a lingering infection in an immunocompromised patient, possibly someone with undiagnosed AIDS.

In patients with weakened immune systems infections can linger for months because the body is unable to fight it off. This gives the virus time to acquire mutations that allow it to get around the body's defenses.

Will I be protected if I have a booster?

Scientists have warned the new strain could make Covid vaccines 40 per cent less effective.

But they said emergence of the mutant variant makes it even more important to get a booster jab the minute people become eligible for one.

The vaccines trigger neutralizing antibodies, which is the best protection available against the new variant. So the more of these antibodies a person has the better, experts said.

Britain's Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, said: 'The booster jab was already important before we knew about this variant – but now, it could not be more important.' 

When will we know more about the variant?

Data on how transmissible the new variant is and its effect on hospitalizations and deaths is still weeks away.

The UK has offered help to South Africa, where most of the cases are concentrated, to gather this information and believe they will know more about transmissibility in two to three weeks.

But it may be four to six weeks until they know more about hospitalizations and deaths.

What is the variant called?

The strain was scientifically named as B.1.1.529 on November 24, one day after it was spotted in Hong Kong.

The variants given an official name so far include Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma.

Experts at the World Health Organization on November 26 named the variant Omicron.