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Top health officials: Questions about new variant could take weeks to answer

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. Credit: TNS/Lo Scalzo Jim/Pool/ABACA

Top federal health officials said Sunday there are looming questions about the new coronavirus variant omicron that may take weeks to answer.

White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said scientists are collecting data to examine how contagious the variant is, how effectively the COVID-19 vaccines work against it and whether it causes severe illness.

Fauci said it is "inevitable" that cases will be found in the United States, but Collins cautioned, "We don't know yet how much of an impact this will have."

"We're going to get better information about this. There's no reason to panic. But it is a great reason to go get boosted." Collins said on CNN’s "State of the Union."

The variant, identified by South African scientists Friday, appears to be "more transmissible" than the highly contagious delta variant, Fauci said on ABC’s This Week. Fauci cited a jump in infections in South Africa, which had had a low transmission rate and a large unvaccinated population.

The discovery led to a wave of new travel bans against several southern African nations, even as cases have also been found in European countries and Australia. In the United States, a ban was expected to start Monday.

South African officials said the bans are punishing the country for its ability to detect variants before other nations because of its advanced science.

Fauci defended the ban, saying while it won’t prevent the variant from entering the United States, it will give officials more time before variant cases could hit.

"And the positive effect is to get us better prepared, to rev up on the vaccination, to be really ready for something that may not actually be a big deal, but we want to make sure that we're prepared for the worst," Fauci said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Fauci and Collins said the variant has caused concern because its mutations could potentially make less protective the antibodies from the vaccine or previous infection.

The variant has dozens of mutations in regions of the coronavirus that antibodies recognize, which could potentially weaken their potency, scientists say. Those regions, called spike proteins, are how the virus attaches to cells in the lungs, nose and throat, they said.

With the variant, the vaccine "may not be as good in protecting against initial infection but it has a very important impact on diminishing the likelihood that you're going to get a severe outcome from it," Fauci said on NBC.

Pharmaceutical companies are already working on a vaccine targeted at the variant, Fauci said on ABC’s "This Week."

Previous variants have shown vaccines are effective, and booster shots further help the immune system recognize different dangers, Collins said.

"I think there's good reasons to think it will probably be okay," Collins said of expecfted vaccine efficacy against omicron. "But we need to know the real answers to that. And that's going to take two or three weeks."

Fauci and Collins urged all people ages five and up to get vaccinated or a booster shot, and to continue precautions such as wearing masks indoors in crowds.

"Whether or not we're headed into a bleak or bleaker winter is really going to depend upon what we do," Fauci said on NBC’s "Meet The Press."

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