President, health leaders address omicron COVID-19 variant

Cleveland Clinic doctors tracking virus mutations
Posted at 5:09 PM, Nov 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-29 18:54:23-05

CLEVELAND — On Monday, President Joe Biden addressed the country about the newly identified variant of the COVID-19 virus. First found by doctors and scientists in South Africa, the World Health Organization (WHO) called this variant "omicron." It has been found in several southern African countries, South Africa, Portugal, Spain, Canada and other areas.

"This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic," Biden said in his address.

Throughout the pandemic, physicians at the Cleveland Clinic have been working to learn more about how the deadly virus mutates. Dr. Daniel Rhoads is the section head of microbiology at the clinic.

"It's challenging because there are more unknowns than knowns right now and everybody wants answers," Rhoads said.

Learning more about the omicron variant is part of Rhoad's job, so when researchers in South Africa found it he started asking questions about what the impact of the variant would be.

"Almost everything is delta so I start to wonder how well is this going to be able to compete in the population compared to delta," he said.

That quandary is one many doctors and scientists have with the emergence of the new variant. What science leaders do know about omicron is making world leaders take big action.

Biden issued a travel restriction to eight countries including South Africa. In his address to the nation, Biden defended his move saying the reason for the restriction was two-fold. One was to allow the U.S. to come up with a response to the new variant and the other was for countries to get citizens immunized.

Part of the focus on omicron is how many spike proteins the variant has compared to already identified mutations.

This will be a test of the already produced vaccines, Rhoads said, but that hasn't stopped science leaders from supporting the immunization options available as a first line of defense.

"Dr. [Anthony] Fauci is with me today," Biden said. "And our medical team -- and [they] believe that the vaccines will continue to provide a degree of protection against severe disease."

Early laboratory data could be ready within weeks, however, Rhoads said, "I think it will take much longer to sort out in vivo, right, in people, how well everything is working because this variant is just emerging now."

So far, the omicron variant has not been detected in the U.S. but with how this virus moves, leaders expect it will show up.

Biden said, America will “face this new threat just as we’ve faced those that have come before it.”

Separately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention broadened its recommendation for COVID-19 booster shots to include all adults because of the new variant. The agency had previously approved boosters for all adults, but only recommended them for those 50 years and older or living in long-term care settings.

“Everyone ages 18 and older should get a booster shot either when they are six months after their initial Pfizer or Moderna series or two months after their initial J&J vaccine,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.