South Africa, whose scientists detected the variant, has fully vaccinated only 24 percent of its population, according to data from the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford. It has a better vaccination rate than most countries on the continent, but has asked vaccine makers to stop sending doses; it is having trouble getting shots into arms, in part because many people are hesitant to take it.
Some experts argue those vaccine inequities are the reason for the emergence of the variant.
“This is precisely what experts have been predicting was going to happen — that the extraordinary inequities and gaps between low income countries and high income countries creates this massive vulnerability and its going to continue to generate these dangerous variants,” said J. Stephen Morrison, a global health expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “That point is glaringly obvious and it’s painful.”
Mr. Biden’s top health advisers, including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, spent much of the holiday weekend consulting with their South African counterparts. The White House said that Mr. Biden met on Sunday with members of his Covid response team, including Dr. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.
With much still unknown about the Omicron variant, Dr. Fauci told the president that it would take approximately two more weeks to learn more about its transmissibility and severity, the White House said, but that “he continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of Covid.”
Administration officials — including the president himself — are encouraging the public to maintain vigilance and safeguard public health through inoculations, masking indoors and distancing.
“We don’t know the level of severity of it; we don’t have enough information yet,” Dr. Fauci said in an interview over the weekend, adding, “This is all the more reason to get vaccinated.”
Appearing on morning talk shows on Sunday, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, cautioned Americans that the emergence of Omicron and the uncertainty that surrounds it are reminders that the pandemic is far from over.
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