Analysis: Biden takes steps to reassure weary Americans as fears mount over new Covid variant

Much is still unknown about the transmissibility of the new variant and how effective vaccines will be in protecting Americans against it, but the government is trying to take a more proactive stance than it did this summer when they appeared to be caught flat-footed by the highly contagious Delta. variant, which is now responsible for the vast majority of cases in the United States — and thwarted Biden’s efforts to return the country to normal in the first year of his term in office.

In his rush to turn the page on the pandemic, Biden predicted a “summer of freedom” at the same time that the Delta variant was making its way into the United States, going so far as to proclaim that America is “closer than once was in declaring our independence from a deadly virus” at an event on July 4. With those missteps in mind, Biden spent Sunday evening with advisers and plans to speak about the situation Monday. He quickly sprang into action to announce the new travel restrictions Friday after the World Health Organization labeled Omicron a “variant of concern,” a signal that the White House was taking seriously the new variant first identified by scientists in South Africa. .

However, the travel bans alone can offer little comfort to Americans, given the widespread debate among public health officials about their effectiveness. Concern about this new Covid threat is particularly high after a week of arduous travel and a Thanksgiving holiday that had left a fleeting sense of the nation returning to normalcy. On Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Americans set a new record for pandemic-era air travel, with the Transportation Security Administration reporting that it screened 2.3 million passengers at airports on that day alone.

Canadian health officials in Ottawa on Sunday confirmed the first two cases of the Omicron Covid-19 strain in the country. Germany and the United Kingdom have also confirmed cases within their borders, and on Sunday British officials announced that face coverings will be mandatory in shops and on public transport, while all travelers returning to the UK must undergo PCR testing for Covid-19 .

Scientists are especially concerned that Omicron has more than 30 mutations in a part of the virus called the spike protein, a structure the coronavirus uses to penetrate the cells it attacks. vaccines currently available in the United States.

The uncertainty surrounding the new variant has been another setback for Biden and for the Democrat-controlled Congress, as their political success in next year’s election will depend in part on demonstrating that they have successfully led the nation out of the pandemic. Biden’s polls have plummeted on concerns about the economy, rising inflation and the supply chain crisis — but the erosion of confidence among Americans about his handling of Covid-19 is especially noteworthy, given that this was once where voters called him. highest marks.

As he tries to restore confidence in his administration’s handling of Covid, Biden’s biggest challenge may be the stubborn opposition among the roughly 60 million U.S. adults who are unvaccinated and the political polarization around the tools at his disposal. , including mask and vaccine mandates.

Public health officials on Sunday expressed new urgency about the need for unvaccinated Americans to get their injections — and for those who qualify for booster shots to get them. dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, has warned that Omicron could already be present in the United States. On NBC’s “Meet The Press” on Sunday, Fauci called the threat of the new variant “a clarion call” for the country to “put aside all these differences that we have and say that if you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated; if you’re fully vaccinated, get a boost and get the kids vaccinated.”

dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, acknowledged that many Americans feel a sense of exhaustion with pandemic mitigation strategies such as masking and social distancing, but he said it was time to redouble those efforts and guard against complacency in the face of the new threat.

“We need to use every kind of tool in our toolbox to keep (Omicron) from getting into a situation that makes this worse,” he told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” Sunday, adding that officials are working with vaccine manufacturers to trying to assess their effectiveness against the new strain. “There’s no need to panic. But it’s a good reason to get a boost.”

Many unanswered questions remain

Moderna’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Paul Burton said on Sunday that Americans should brace themselves for several weeks of uncertainty as scientists and vaccine manufacturers investigate the transmissibility of the new variant, the level of disease it causes and whether the antibodies produced in response to current vaccines will be effective at to thwart it.

Moderna is investigating the possibility of an Omicron-specific vaccine booster should the need arise, Burton said.

“This is a virus that now has at least 50 mutations, many spanning the previous variants of concern, Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta. At least 30 mutations in the spike protein alone that we know lead to evasion and escape of the virus.” immune system, and also increased replication,” Burton said on CNN’s ‘Newsroom.’ “This is a new key thrown into the fight against Covid.”

dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, has warned that data on the portability of the new variant looked “worrying” so far, in part because it got off the ground quickly in South Africa. He warned in a guest essay in The New York Times this weekend that there is no time to lose, because if it “proves to be as contagious and immune-evasive as many experts are concerned, waiting for all the facts to come in will leave us hopelessly behind.” will let.”

In an interview on CNN’s “Inside Politics” on Sunday, he explained that “we’re seeing all these mutations in the spike protein in areas that our vaccines and immune systems are targeting — and that’s what makes a lot of us concerned about immune evasion. We think.” not that our vaccines will become useless, but at the same time we don’t know how much impact the vaccines will have,” he said.

Jha argued that the effect of the entry ban against foreign nationals from the eight African countries would be “modest at best” and urged the Biden administration to step up genomic surveillance, working with vaccine makers to identify Omicron-specific create vaccines and push for more vigorous efforts to get more people vaccinated in Africa.

dr. Leana Wen, a CNN medical analyst who is the former Baltimore health commissioner, said she believed the travel restrictions for the eight countries were necessary, but added that the Biden administration should go even further by quarantining all international travelers. place and retest. Since the US allows permanent residents and US citizens to return from the African countries affected by the restrictions, she added, they should also be required to retest and quarantine to prevent the variant from spreading. spreads.

“Otherwise there are just too many loopholes and we’re not really reaching our goal, which is to contain Omicron and try to stop it from coming to this country, realizing it might already be in the US” , she said.

Some of the sharpest criticisms of the travel bans enforced by the US and other countries came from South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday.

“These restrictions are completely unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country and our southern African sister countries,” Ramaphosa said in a speech on Sunday. “The travel ban is not backed up by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant. All the travel ban will do is further damage the economies of the affected countries and their ability to respond to and also to to recover from the pandemic.”

Biden will have to answer those criticisms Monday and whether there are more effective steps he can take against the new variant when faced with a nation seeking answers.

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