Omicron variant spreads globally, sparking fears of winter COVID-19 surge

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La Canada Flintridge, CA - November 16: Mardiros Ebrahamian, 82, gets a boaster shot Moderna vaccine for COVID19 at Flintridge Pharmacy on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021 in La Canada Flintridge, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Mardiros Ebrahamian, 82, gets a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine booster shot this month at Flintridge Pharmacy in La Cañada Flintridge. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Facing a global spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, U.S. health officials said it will probably take two weeks to fully determine the level of threat but pushed coronavirus booster shots as a key first stage in the battle.

President Biden met with top health advisors Sunday to map out a strategy as new cases were confirmed in more global locations, including Germany, Italy, Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong.

In Amsterdam, 13 people on flights from South Africa, in the region where Omicron is believed to have originated, tested positive. In England, officials imposed stricter mask rules in response to the discovery of two cases.

The Biden administration on Sunday stressed the need for vigilant adherence to existing COVID-19 safety practices, notably vaccinations and booster shots.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, said a new winter COVID-19 wave is possible but that vaccinations are the best way right now to combat another spike.

"If we have a combination of getting as many people as we can get vaccinated as possible who have not yet gotten vaccinated, add on to it the children who are now eligible, the 5 to 11, there's 28 million of those. ... If we do that successfully in a very intensive way, we can mitigate any increase," Fauci told “Face the Nation.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reiterated that strategy. “From today we’re going to boost the booster campaign,” he said.

Interest in booster shots so far has been more sluggish than some officials had expected. Fauci said that must change.

“We feel, even with variants like Omicron, that if you get boosted, you’re going to get a level of antibody that’s high enough that it is likely you’ll be able to get at least some degree and maybe even a lot of protection against this,” he said.

The variant, first identified in southern Africa amid a spike in infections there, has more mutations than any scientists have seen, including some that may make the virus more resistant to immunity generated from previous infections or vaccines.

Many questions remain unanswered about the variant, including how rapidly it spreads and how well vaccines do against it. But Fauci said there is concern about the speed at which the Omicron variant has swept across South Africa.

“It just kind of exploded in the sense that when you look at South Africa, you were having a low level of infection and then all of a sudden there was this big spike,” he said.

“The profile of the mutations strongly suggests that it’s going to have an advantage in transmissibility and that it might evade immune protection,” he said, adding that “the critical questions now are do the antibodies block this well, and what is the seriousness of the disease?”

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said Sunday that the Omicron variant “has a lot of mutations.”

“It does make you worry therefore that it’s a sufficiently different virus — that it may not respond as well to protection from the vaccines. But we don’t know that,” Collins said on “Fox News Sunday.”

“We can certainly see that in South Africa and a few neighboring countries in the south part of Africa this does seem to be spreading quite rapidly. So the inference would be there that it’s particularly contagious. We don’t know about its severity. [We’re] trying to collect that data as quickly as possible."

Collins stressed there are no data yet that suggests the new variant causes more serious illness than previous COVID-19 variants.

“I do think it’s more contagious when you look at how rapidly it spread through multiple districts in South Africa. It has the earmarks, therefore, of being particularly likely to spread from one person to another. What we don’t know is whether it can compete with Delta [variant],” Collins said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

There has been some initial suggestion that the new variant generally causes mild illness, based on many of the cases followed in South Africa. But some scientists have cautioned that this idea could stem from the fact that the early reports have been on cases among younger, healthier people, and that it really is too soon to know whether Omicron causes more severe illness than earlier variants.

Beginning Monday, the U.S. plans to ban travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries.

Many governments rushed to close their borders, fearful of any new development in a virus that has already killed 5 million worldwide.

Israel announced the strictest measures, closing its borders for two weeks and red-lining travel to 50 African countries. Morocco barred all incoming flights for two weeks.

As airports snarled and travelers faced canceled flights, the World Health Organization condemned the travel bans that would “place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods” while doing little to stop the variant’s spread. Similar bans did little to slow the Delta variant from England a year ago.

Throughout 2021, the WHO pleaded with richer countries to not hoard vaccines and starve poor countries of protection. With much of the world still unvaccinated, the risk of new variants developing is high.

South Africa’s government responded angrily to the travel bans, which it said are “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.”

In the United States, where 62 million eligible Americans have chosen not to get available vaccines, and others who have not had booster shots may have waning immunity, there was already worry over a surge.

California officials joined the Biden administration in the vaccine push.

Dr. Tomás J. Aragón, director of the California Department of Public Health, said the variant has not been found in California and that the state has formed a public-private partnership for genomic sequencing in an effort to detect the Omicron variant early.

Travelers arriving in California who have been in South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia or Zimbabwe within the last 14 days must follow recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to get tested three to five days after arrival, quarantine for seven days even if testing negative, and isolate for 10 days if COVID-19 symptoms develop.

“We are doubling down on our vaccination and booster efforts to ensure that all Californians have access to safe, effective and free vaccines that can prevent serious illness and death,” Aragón said in the statement.

In Los Angeles County, health officials are urging the public to be vaccinated and wear masks in indoor public settings and at outdoor “mega events.”

Those on the ground know how hard it will be to get people to, in effect, take cover from a possible incoming wave.

“We all knew something like this was coming,” said Dr. Rene Ramirez, a UC San Francisco emergency department physician on the Fresno campus, which has been repeatedly overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. Ramirez also serves as the public health officer for Calaveras County, where the vaccine rate is barely 50% compared to the statewide rate of 62%.

“To me, the biggest question is why is not everyone getting vaccinated in order to protect others? As long as there is a high transmission rate, the virus will continue to mutate,” he said. “We have to find a way to flip the conversation from me-me-me to protecting others by wearing masks and getting vaccinated.”

But he conceded that even he, a doctor, had failed to convince a friend he knew since kindergarten to get vaccinated, even as their relative lay intubated with COVID-19. He also has faced threats from people angry over mask mandates.

The Associated Press and Times staff writers Rong-Gong Lin II and Alex Wigglesworth contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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