WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The top US infectious disease official, Dr Anthony Fauci, told President Joe Biden on Sunday (Nov 28) it will take about two weeks to have definitive information on the new coronavirus variant Omicron, which has sparked new travel restrictions and shaken financial markets.
Mr Biden, returning to Washington following the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, was briefed in person by his coronavirus response team on Sunday afternoon as officials expect the new variant to reach the United States despite an impending ban on travellers from southern Africa, where it was first detected.
Dr Fauci said he believes existing vaccines are likely to provide "a degree of protection against severe cases of Covid-19", and officials reiterated their recommendation for vaccinated Americans to get booster shots, according to a read-out of the briefing.
Mr Biden was due to update the public on the new variant and the US response on Monday, the White House said.
Omicron has now been confirmed in Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, South Africa and the US' neighbour to the north, Canada.
Earlier on Sunday, Dr Fauci told ABC News that the new variant would "inevitably" reach the US.
US health officials were to speak to their counterparts in South Africa to get "more information in real time", Dr Fauci told NBC, adding that the flight curbs would give them more time to gather information and weigh possible action.
"It clearly is giving indication that it has the capability of transmitting rapidly. That's the thing that is causing us now to be concerned," he said on NBC.
Its appearance in the US, where 30 per cent of the population has not received a single dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, could threaten to undermine the nation's recovery nearly two years after Covid-19's emergence and further pressure local healthcare systems already taxed by the recent Delta variant.
Rising cases as colder weather forces more people indoors have also caused some hospital systems and US states, including New York, to declare emergencies.
So far, nearly 782,000 people have died in the US from Covid-19 since early 2020, the most of any country in the world, amid more than 48 million infections, Reuters data shows.
Travellers banned, not flights
The US is joining other nations in seeking to block transmission by imposing travel restrictions.
Beginning at 12.01am (1.01pm Singapore time) on Monday, it will bar entry of nearly all foreign nationals who have been in any of eight southern African countries within the last 14 days and has warned Americans against travelling to those nations. American citizens who have travelled to the countries will still be able to enter the US.
Flights by Delta Air Lines and United Airlines have continued from South Africa to the US since the variant was discovered.
Passengers interviewed by CNN as they arrived on flights from southern Africa at two US airports - one in Atlanta and the other at Newark - said they were not subject to any specific checks or restrictions
Dr Fauci and other top officials said the sudden burst of cases made Omicron worrisome and it remained unclear how current vaccines or therapeutics could be impacted.
"We need more data there before we can say confidently that this is not a severe version of the virus, but we should find that out in the next couple of weeks," outgoing National Institutes of Health director, Dr Francis Collins, told Fox News.
Vaccine makers Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have said they expect more information soon.
"We have to go through a couple of weeks yet of uncertainty," Moderna chief medical officer Paul Burton told CNN, saying Omicron's transmissibility and severity were also still unknown along with current vaccines' effectiveness against it.
'Clarion call' for shots
Dr Fauci pressed Americans to continue to get Covid-19 vaccines and boosters while experts evaluate Omicron.
"This is a clarion call... (to) get vaccinated," he told NBC.
White House chief of staff Ron Klain echoed that sentiment, saying on Twitter: "The thing every vaccinated adult should do now, if they have not done it yet, is get a booster shot."
The US has recorded more than 1.1 million new Covid cases in the last 14 days, up 9 per cent from the prior two weeks, Reuters data shows, with Michigan and Minnesota leading the nation in new cases, based on infections per 100,000 residents.
The governor of one hard-hit state, Arkansas' Mr Asa Hutchinson, expressed worry over another blow from the latest variant. "Delta has been tough on us. And so we don't welcome a new variant. And it is a great concern," he told CNN.
The variant could cast a pall over the rest of the US holiday season and potentially impact companies' return-to-office plans depending on what officials discover in coming weeks. A number of banks and other firms have said they planned for workers to come back in January.
On Wall Street, sources at major US banks and European banks with large US operations said they were not yet changing their policies but were monitoring the situation.