Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks about the Omicron coronavirus variant in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Monday. Photo by Oliver Contreras/UPI | License Photo
Nov. 30 (UPI) -- White House health officials said Tuesday that they are actively looking for the Omicron variant of the coronavirus in the United States and continued to stress vaccinations, despite the CEO Moderna questioning their effectiveness against the new strain.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, said while the information on the Omicron variant is still limited, he believes current vaccines and a booster shot will offer protection against it.
He said even though the Omicron variant has shown a level of "immune escape," he said the level of antibodies provided by vaccines and boosters "give you a degree of cross-protection, particularly against severe disease."
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said while she is stressing the importance of having a booster shot, she was not adding the booster to the definition of being "fully vaccinated." She said, though, discussions on the topic are ongoing.
"We can't predict the future, but we can prepare for it," Walensky said during the briefing.
Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 Response Team coordinator, said they have been in contact with Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, the creators of the three vaccines approved in the United States, about vaccine modifications if needed.
Zients said it would take "a few months" to get a modified vaccine available to the public, which includes approvals by the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC and manufacturing.
Fauci also warned that while early studies suggest that those affected with the Omicron variant have suffered from "mild" symptoms, he said it was too early to tell its progression. He said more time is needed in the upcoming weeks to confirm how severe those cases will become.
According to the CDC, about 70% of Americans have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Almost 60% have been fully vaccinated.
"In the event ... that updated vaccinations or boosters are needed to respond to Omicron, we will accelerate their development and deployment with every available tool,'' Biden said in an address Monday.
Many scientists have expressed some alarm at the new variant, but say there's a lot more that still isn't known. Most experts agree that it's highly likely that the existing vaccines will be at least somewhat effective against the Omicron mutation.
Earlier Tuesday, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said he's unsure about the effectiveness of existing vaccines against the Omicron variant, which was first found in South Africa.
"I think it's going to be a material drop," Bancel told the Financial Times.
"I just don't know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I've talked to ... are like, 'This is not going to be good.'"
Regeneron Pharmaceuticals said on Tuesday that the new variant has likely weakened the effectiveness of its antibody cocktail.
Fauci said early this week that the Omicron variant may be more transmissible, and that it's almost certain to show up in the United States at some point. There have been no official U.S. cases of the variant.
"The profile of the mutations strongly suggest that it's going to have an advantage in transmissibility and that it might evade immune protection that you would get, for example, from a monoclonal antibody or from the convalescent serum after a person's been infected and possibly even against some of the vaccine-induced antibodies," he said.