By Philip Wegmann for RealClearPolitics
In front of the camera, Anthony Fauci was calm and cautious, despite reports coming out of South Africa that a new variant of the coronavirus had been discovered, a strain that the World Health Organization designated “a variant of concern” and would later dub “omicron.”
There wasn’t evidence that omicron was in the United States just yet, President Biden’s chief medical adviser told CNN’s Brianna Keilar early Friday morning. Sure, Fauci admitted, the reports were “a red flag that this might be an issue.”
But until his team learned more, until they could test the variant and consult with their international counterparts, he explained, “we don’t know.”
Were travel restrictions being considered, the host asked. Again, America’s most famous doctor explained, he couldn’t say for certain other than to promise “a decision as quickly as we possibly can.” Hours later, the White House had apparently seen enough.
“Out of an abundance of caution,” the president banned travel from South Africa and seven other affected nearby nations. Then Biden resumed his holiday getaway on Nantucket and went Christmas shopping.
The president shook hands and posed for pictures and, at least once, let his mask slip off indoors. All of it was a prelude to the message he delivered to reporters Monday in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. “This variant is a cause for concern,” Biden explained, “not a cause for panic.”
This isn’t the first time his administration has had to deal with a new variant of the virus; the delta strain was an unwelcome surprise this summer.
Aside from the new travel restrictions, the first of his tenure, Biden stuck to a well-worn script, so much so that he even acknowledged the repetition: “I know you’re tired of hearing me say this: The best protection against this new variant or any of the variants out there, the ones we’ve been dealing with already, is getting fully vaccinated and getting a booster shot.”
New variant, meet the same old health guidance. And as of now, Biden explained, experts do not believe that an update to the current vaccine is needed to combat omicron. In anticipation of the “hopefully unlikely” event that changes are needed, he announced that his team is already working with pharmaceutical companies and the FDA to be prepared.
Throughout his brief remarks Monday, the president conveyed a sense of inevitability, a recognition that as far as pandemics and microbiology go, mutations in viruses should be expected.
They should not, however, be alarming. “Sooner or later we’re going to see cases of this new variant here in the United States,” he said. “We’ll have to face this new threat just as we faced those that have come before it.”
Additional measures are forthcoming as well. Biden said his administration would announce a new plan Thursday for fighting the virus during the colder winter months, “not with shutdowns or lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more.”
This was a relief for those who fear a return to the darker, earlier days of the pandemic. The pronouncement was not, however, absolute.
A reporter asked: Are lockdowns off the table?
“Yes. For now, yes,” Biden replied.
The journalist pushed: Why is that? “Well,” he responded, “because if people are vaccinated and wear their mask, there’s no need for the lockdown.”
This was reminiscent, at least to some Biden critics, of the White House’s binary prescription on masks. In May, the president announced that the new rule was “vax’ed or masked.”
When the delta variant began to surge, the Centers for Disease Control reversed course and recommended that even the vaccinated wear face coverings. Biden later blamed the vaccine-hesitant, calling the increase in cases and deaths “a largely preventable tragedy.”
Sen. Ted Cruz saw a veiled threat in the promise not to return to lockdowns. The Texas Republican responded to RealClearPolitics on Monday by sarcastically noting, “That’s some nice freedom you’ve got there. It would be a shame if anything happened to it.”
All the same, a senior White House official reiterated to RCP that the administration believes “we have the tools to avoid lockdowns – we know what works.” And Jeff Zients, the leader of Biden’s COVID response team, told reporters point-blank that “we are not headed in that direction.
We have the tools to accelerate the path out of this pandemic: widely available vaccinations; booster shots; kids’ shots; therapeutics, including monoclonal antibodies to help those who contract the virus.”
According to the World Health Organization, it is too early to say whether the new variant could lead to more severe sickness, though it may be more transmissible. “Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,” the WHO said in a statement. “The overall global risk related to the new variant of concern … is assessed as very high.”
More research is needed to see how omicron affects vaccinated individuals. But Angelique Coetzee, one of the researchers who discovered the new strain, has said that patients treated by her, even unvaccinated ones, have had mild symptoms.
And while the Biden White House has repeatedly praised the South African government for its transparency, leaders there were incensed by the travel ban. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called it “scientifically unjustified.”
The travel bans may also be politically uncomfortable for Biden. Shortly after his predecessor banned international travel at the start of the pandemic, the Democrat blasted Trump for his “hysterical xenophobia” and “fearmongering.” Wasn’t Biden being hypocritical now, asked Fox News’ Peter Doocy. Not at all, insisted Jen Psaki.
“The president has not been critical of travel restrictions. We have put those in place ourselves. We put them in place ourselves in the spring,” the White House press secretary answered.
Syndicated with permission from RealClearWire.