biden
U.S. President Joe Biden removes his mask to deliver an update on the Omicron variant at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 29, 2021. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)   

By Alexandra Alper and Jeff Mason

President Joe Biden urged Americans on Monday not to panic about the new Covid-19 Omicron variant and said the United States was working with pharmaceutical companies to make contingency plans if new vaccines were needed.

Biden said the country would not go back to lockdowns to stop the spread of Omicron, and he would lay out his strategy on Thursday for combating the pandemic over the winter. He urged people to get vaccinated, get boosters and wear masks.

“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” Biden said in remarks at the White House following a meeting with his COVID-19 team.

“We’re going to fight and beat this new variant,” he said.

Biden said it was inevitable that Omicron cases, which were first detected in southern Africa, would emerge in the United States. He said officials were still studying Omicron but believed that existing vaccines would continue to protect against severe disease.

Biden said his administration was working with vaccine makers Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans.

“In the event, hopefully unlikely, that updated vaccinations or boosters are needed to respond to this new variant, we will accelerate their development and deployment with every available tool,” he said.

Biden said he would direct the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to “use the fastest process available without cutting any corners for safety to get such vaccines approved and on the market if needed.”

A U.S. travel ban took effect earlier on Monday blocking most visitors from eight southern African nations from entering the country. Earlier flights from South Africa to the U.S. did not screen passengers after the variant was found.

Biden said the travel restrictions were put in place to give the country time to get more people vaccinated.

Vaccine hesitancy in the United States and around the world has thwarted public health officials’ efforts to get the pandemic under control.

Just 59% of all Americans are fully vaccinated, although almost 70% now have at least one dose. Nearly 782,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States, according to a Reuters tally.

Much of the United States shut down in early 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, but economic activity and jobs have bounced back in recent months. Face masks and vaccine mandates are opposed by some Republican politicians, even as health experts tout their effectiveness.

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper and Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Heather Timmons and Lisa Shumaker)

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