Biden administration focuses on booster shots as best strategy against new coronavirus variant

The Biden administration is focusing on booster shots as a key weapon in efforts to protect the nation against a potentially dangerous coronavirus variant even as the extent of the threat remains unclear, the White House said Sunday.

A group of senior health officials had a call with South African scientists Sunday to review the latest on the new variant and to help inform next steps, according to two senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.

In an update Sunday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said it is still too early to know whether the new variant, dubbed omicron, is more transmissible than the delta variant. There remains little understanding about the severity of illness caused by the variant and the rate of hospitalization. Scientists in South Africa, where the variant was first identified, said they expect more breakthrough cases in people vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Researchers could soon have a better indication of how well vaccines protect against the new variant. But the Biden administration is already moving to urge as many Americans as possible to receive booster shots in coming days as the best means to protect against omicron.

That campaign is likely to involve messages urging people to get boosters and efforts to make sure the shots are available in as many locations as possible.

“The vaccinated people, the thing that we know for sure is that when you boost someone who’s been vaccinated with two doses of Pfizer or Moderna, you increase the level of neutralizing antibodies extraordinarily high — many fold higher than even the peak following the first two doses,” Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Fauci said “it is quite conceivable if not likely” that booster shots will provide at least a partial shield of protection against the new variant.

Omicron has a high number of mutations that could make it more easily transmissible, though that remains unclear. In South Africa, cases are rising but it is not yet clear whether the rise is fueled by omicron or other factors, according to the WHO.

Biden on Sunday met with Fauci and members of the White House covid-19 response team. Fauci told Biden it would take about two more weeks before there was more information on the transmissibility, severity and other characteristics of the variant, but stressed that he believed vaccines would continue to provide a degree of protection, according to a White House account of the meeting.

The White House said the covid response team’s recommendation was for all adults to receive a booster as soon as possible and for unvaccinated adults and eligible children to get immunized. People 18 and older are eligible for booster shots.

Experts, including Fauci, have said it is highly unlikely that the vaccines offer no protection against the new variant. The WHO said it was working with “a large number of researchers around the world” to understand the impact omicron would have on existing vaccines and antivirals. Even if there is diminished protection compared with other variants, there is a benefit to increasing the number of virus-neutralizing antibodies by getting a booster shot, senior health officials and experts said.

“If you’re worried about omicron, do the same things as if you’re worried about delta. Get your boost and get fully vaccinated,” said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine


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