WASHINGTON — Federal regulators and COVID-19 vaccine makers are in "conversations" to streamline authorization of a booster shot specific to the rising omicron variant, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Sunday.
"Those conversations are ongoing, and certainly, the [Food and Drug Administration] will move swiftly and CDC will move swiftly right thereafter," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said on ABC's "This Week."
Walensky and the nation’s other top public health officials fanned out across the network Sunday political talk shows, urging people to either get a vaccination or a booster current shot as scientists continue studying the omicron variant of the coronavirus. The newest highly transmissible strain has so far been detected in New York and 15 other states.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the White House, said on CNN’s "State of the Union that "it's too early to really make any definitive statements about" the severity of the omicron strain.
"We have really got to be careful before we make any determinations that it is less severe or it really doesn't cause any severe illness comparable to Delta," Fauci said. "Thus far, the signals are a bit encouraging regarding the severity. But, again, you've got to hold judgment until we get more experience."
Although initial reports from South Africa, where the omicron variant was first detected, show those infected with the strain experiencing mild symptoms, it's too soon to know if those infections will develop into more severe cases, the World Health Organization's Maria Van Kerkhove told CBS' "Face the Nation."
"We do know that people who are infected with Omicron variant can have mild disease all the way through severe disease," Van Kerkhove said. "Initial reports suggest that people with omicron tend to have more mild disease, but it's too early to tell. And the reason for that is because it takes time for people to go through the full course of their infection. It may take some weeks before we actually understand how many of those individuals will go on to develop severe disease."
Fauci said among the questions scientists are analyzing is "what's going to happen" when both delta and omicron are circulating at-large, "competing with each other."
"Boosters are going to be really critical addressing whether or not we're going to be able to handle this," he said.
Vaccine manufacturers Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer have all said their existing COVID-19 vaccines will likely need modification to offer increased protection against the omicron strain.
Walensky said the approval process to get omicron-specific boosters would likely be expedited "because much of the vaccine is actually exactly the same and really, it would just be that mRNA code that would have to change."
Walesnky said despite the new focus on omicron, the Delta variant continues be a concern and accounts for the vast majority of new COVID-19 cases nationwide.
"We have about 90 to 100,000 cases a day right now in the United States, and 99.9% of them are the Delta variant," she said.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told NBC’s "Meet the Press" that "it's certainly possible that [omicron] is not the last emerging variant that will attract a lot of attention and a lot of concern."
"This one does have the largest number of mutations that we've seen so far … with about 50 mutations, compared to the original" virus that originated in Wuhan, China, Collins said.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, appearing on CBS’ "Face the Nation" said he understood that "the prospect of another variant … can be exhausting and frustrating to many people out there," but noted "we are not at the beginning of this pandemic … we have learned a tremendous amount about how to gather safely."
Murthy said that "if people use the tools that we have, that you can actually gather with much, much less risk" but the "challenge we have right now in the country … is that we have millions of people who are still unvaccinated, which poses a risk to their lives, but also poses an increased risk of transmission."