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The ommicron Covid-19 variant that has led to global travel restrictions and new vaccine mandates since its discovery last month in southern Africa has now been found in 50 countries and 19 US states, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday.
“While we are still working to understand the severity of omicron and how it responds to therapies and vaccines, we expect that all of the same measures will provide at least some protection against omicron,” Walensky said at a White House Covid-19 press conference, reiterating her call to get vaccinated.
Jeff Zients, who leads the White House’s Covid response efforts, said the number of vaccinations rose in the past week by about 12.5 million injections — 7 million of which were booster shots.
“That’s the highest weekly total number of shots since May,” he said. “So we are now vaccinating people in numbers that we haven’t seen since the spring.”
White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, said scientists should have some data by the middle of next week showing how well current vaccines resist the new variant, which contains dozens of mutations that make it generally more contagious.
“We will be able to determine whether or not antibodies induced by all vaccines lose their effectiveness with omicron,” Fauci said of studies of both live virus and “pseudovirus.” “In addition, we are doing animal studies to evaluate the immune protection and efficacy of antivirals.”
He said “real world evidence” in epidemiology and clinical studies will definitively show how transmissible and serious the virus is and whether it can evade vaccines.
Fauci pointed to a chart showing a seven-day moving average of confirmed omicron cases per 1 million people in South Africa, noting that it is now the dominant variant circulating in the country. “The near-vertical bending of this clearly argues for a high degree of portability, he said.
He said it was too early to determine the severity of the disease. While data released this weekend from South Africa indicates that omicron may cause milder disease, he cautioned, “however, this may be influenced by the fact that many in this particular cohort are young individuals.”
There is an increased risk that people who have recovered from the beta or delta variants will become reinfected with omicron, he said. One study showed a threefold increase in the risk of reinfection with omicron over other variants, according to a slide he shared with the group. That indicates, “again without definitive evidence, that there is a variation and, in fact, evasion of immunity caused by other variants.”