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Biden echoes concern about Omicron variant of coronavirus as global cases rise

Days after the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus led parts of the world, including the United States, to close their borders to South Africa and neighboring countries, U.S. President Joe Biden spoke to the public Monday in defense of the emerging travel restrictions.

"It gives us time. It gives us time to take more actions, to move quicker, to make sure people understand you have to get the vaccine," Biden said. "Sooner or later we are going to see cases of this new variant in the United States. We'll have to face this new threat just as we faced those that came before it."

The United States joined Canada, Australia, Iran, Japan, Thailand, Brazil and the whole of the European Union in placing travel bans on several countries in southern Africa last week in response to news of the new strain that shows signs of causing higher rates of reinfection among people who previously had COVID-19, as compared with previous versions of the virus.

Though the data remains unclear as to whether Omicron is more transmissible or causes more severe illness than earlier strains, the World Health Organization flagged the strain as a potential threat in need of further scientific research. The group was critical, however, of hastily enacted travel bans, saying more information on the strain is needed before harsh sanctions are laid down.

With the president of Malawi calling such measures evidence of "Afrophobia," Biden on Monday called the U.S. ban a necessary move in response to the high number of cases in South Africa, where only 41% of people aged 18 and over are vaccinated.

Biden said the new variant and the high likelihood of continued geographic spread underscore the need not only for Americans to get vaccinated but for the international community to distribute vaccines to countries in need.

In contrast to the United States and most European countries where vaccines are widely available, vaccination rates across Africa are low. Less than 6% of people in Africa are fully vaccinated, and millions of people working in health care as well as members of at-risk populations have not been immunized at all.

"Vaccinating the world is just one more tool in how we need to meet our moral obligation as Americans and how to best protect Americans as well. The delta variant and now the Omicron all emerged elsewhere in the world so we can't let up until the world is vaccinated," Biden said.

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As more countries identify cases of the emerging variant, fear is spreading faster than intensive research into whether the genetic makeup of Omicron includes changes to the virus that could potentially lower the efficacy of vaccines against COVID-19.

New cases of the Omicron variant were identified in Germany and Italy and Belgium this weekend, with Israel and Hong Kong also reporting cases.

Biden said health officials do not yet believe current COVID-19 vaccines will be ineffective against the strain, but added that he is in talks with vaccine producers to create contingency plans in the event they have to update vaccines and booster shots to protect against Omicron.

"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," Biden said.

If new vaccines are needed, Biden said he will call on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the Food and Drug Administration to speed up the approval process to expedite distribution.

"This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic," Biden said during a news conference Monday. "We have more tools today to fight the variant than we have ever had before."

Throughout the pandemic, the United States has shipped more than 275 million vaccines to 110 countries, more than all other countries combined, according to Biden.

"Now we need the rest of the world to step up as well," Biden said.

The White House will release a detailed strategy for how it plans to fight COVID-19 during the winter months on Thursday.

According to the World Health Organization, the process of understanding how the emerging strain behaves and what it means for the fight to end the pandemic will likely take weeks — a factor that is not stopping countries from taking aggressive action as the pandemic prepares to enter its second year.

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Spc. Hassani Ribera/U.S. Army National Guard

Soldiers and airmen from the Puerto Rico National Guard screen travelers at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, in Puerto Rico on September 24, 2021.