WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden urged Americans to get vaccinated and to receive a booster shot amid concerns about the coronavirus omicron variant — saying the new strain is a "cause for concern, not a cause for panic."
Biden, who gave remarks at the White House, emphasized the importance of vaccination to protect against all variants of the COVID-19 virus and the urgency of vaccinating the roughly 80 million Americans aged 5 and up who haven't received a shot. But Biden said he does not anticipate the need for any new virus-related restrictions, beyond last week's move to restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region effective Monday.
"I expect the new normal to be, everyone ends up getting vaccinated and the booster shot, so we reduce the number of people who aren't protected to such a low degree that we're not seeing the spread of these viruses," he said, noting that there won't be a need for lockdown measures.
The president also praised South African scientists for acting fast to identify the new variant, saying the world will fight it "with scientific and knowledgable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion."
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert and Biden's leading COVID-19 adviser, said earlier Monday that there were as yet still no cases of the variant identified in the U.S. but that it was "inevitable" that it would make its way into the country eventually.
Fauci said scientists hope to know in the next week or two how well the existing COVID-19 vaccines protect against the new variant, and how dangerous it is compared to earlier strains.
"We really don’t know," Fauci told "Good Morning America," calling any speculation "premature."
On Friday, a World Health Organization panel named the latest variant "omicron" and classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern, the same category that includes the predominant delta variant — which is still a scourge driving higher cases of sickness and death in Europe and parts of the United States.
Omicron’s actual risks are not fully understood yet. But early evidence suggests it carries an increased risk of reinfection compared with other highly transmissible variants, the WHO said. That means people who contracted COVID-19 and recovered could be subject to catching it again. It could take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against it.
Medical experts, including the WHO, warned against any overreaction before the variant was thoroughly studied. But a jittery world feared the worst after the tenacious virus triggered a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people around the globe.
"We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment," British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers.
Officials said the move to limit most travel from the countries where omicron was first identified was meant to buy time for the U.S to learn more about the variant. But Fauci said it would eventually reach the U.S. and could, like the delta variant before it, become the dominant strain, saying omicron "has a transmissibility advantage" over other variants.
Pharmaceutical companies are already tweaking their existing COVID-19 vaccines to better attack the omicron variant, but Fauci said Americans should make it a priority to get either their first shots or a booster dose now, rather than waiting for a newly formulated shot.
"I would strongly suggest you get boosted now," he said.
He added that depending on what scientists learn about the omicron variant in the coming weeks "we may not need" targeted boosters to contain that strain of the virus.
The U.S. previously opened COVID-19 booster shots to all adults and took the extra step of urging people 50 and older to seek one, aiming to ward off a winter surge as coronavirus cases rise even before millions of Americans travel for the holidays.
Under the new rules, anyone 18 or older can choose either a Pfizer or Moderna booster six months after their last dose. For anyone who got the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the wait already was just two months. And people can mix-and-match boosters from any company.
The No. 1 priority for the U.S., and the world, still is to get more unvaccinated people their first doses. All three COVID-19 vaccines used in the U.S. continue to offer strong protection against severe illness, including hospitalization and death, without a booster.
But protection against infection can wane with time, and the U.S. and many countries in Europe also are grappling with how widely to recommend boosters as they fight a winter wave of new cases. In the U.S., COVID-19 diagnoses have climbed steadily over the last three weeks, especially in states where colder weather already has driven people indoors.
According to the CDC, more than 231 million Americans over the age of 5 have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, representing 74.1% of the demographic.
Austin Williams, Jordan Smith and the Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.