The new Omicron variant of coronavirus may already be in the US after spreading from South Africa, Dr Anthony Fauci has said.
The chief White House medical adviser told NBC’s Today programme on Saturday that he “would not be surprised” if the emerging Covid mutation had reached America via plane travel.
“We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility, and you’re already having travel-related cases in Israel and Belgium and other places, it almost invariably is ultimately going to go all over,” he said.
He described President Joe Biden’s new travel restrictions on South Africa and seven other African countries as a precautionary measure while scientists study the dangers of Omicron.
It comes after Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson announced that masks would once again be made mandatory in shops and on public transport in England following the discovery of two cases there.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared Omicron a “variant of concern” due to its rapid spread through sub-Saharan Africa and into Europe, Israel and Hong Kong.
In South Africa, up to 90 per cent of new Covid cases in the province of Gauteng are thought to be driven by Omicron, which was first discovered in nearby Botswana earlier this month.
Scientists have found Omicron has about twice as many mutations in its spike protein, the structure that coronaviruses use to attack human cells, as the Delta variant that has wreaked such havoc this year, and some research suggests it is much more contagious.
“We don't know that yet, but you have to be careful and assume that that's the case,” said Dr Fauci on Saturday. “It seems to have spread rather rapidly in South Africa, even though the numbers are relatively small.
“Its ability to infect people who have recovered from infection, and even people who’ve been vaccinated, make us say this is something you gotta play really close attention to, and be prepared for something that’s serious.”
All three major vaccine makers have said they are studying Omicron to find out how effectively existing jabs can block it. Only one in five Americans over the age of 18 have got booster shots so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“We know now that when you get a booster shot, you dramatically increase the level of protection. So if ever there was a reason for people to say, putting all these other things aside, let’s get vaccinated, let’s get boosted, and let’s be careful.”
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