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With little information about Omicron, Biden addressed the travel ban to buy time

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WASHINGTON At the time President Biden was briefed on the appearance of a new Covid variant moving fast in the morning after Thanksgiving, he had a choice to make and a little information to base it on.

In a secure conference call from a holiday complex overlooking Nantucket Harbor, the president listened as his health advisers told him the highly mutated virus was far more troubling than other variants he had seen in recent months. It spread twice as fast as the dominant Delta variant and had the potential to avoid treatments and vaccines.

Banning travel from South Africa, where the variant was discovered last week, would not stop the coronavirus from finding its way to the United States, officials told Mr Biden, although Britain and several other countries had announced similar restrictions. But measures can slow the spread.

During the 30-minute conference, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the presidents’ top medical adviser on the coronavirus, and other health officials acknowledged how little they knew about the threat, according to White House officials and others familiar with the discussion. But they concluded that even a potentially marginal benefit from a travel ban was worth the criticism it was likely to generate from affected countries, officials said. Better to be criticized for something you do than for something you do not do.

Hours later, as Mr Biden ate lunch with his extended family at the Nantucket Tap Room, the White House issued a statement on his behalf announcing a travel ban from eight countries in South Africa, sparking outrage among leaders. in that region and by global health experts who questioned the benefits of the measure, saying it was tantamount to punishing South Africa for being transparent about the virus.

Here’s what it does: It gives us time. It gives us time to take more action to move faster, Mr Biden said at the White House on Monday morning, as he called the new variant, called Omicron, a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.

The sudden arrival of Omicron represented a troublesome moment, yet for a tired and politically divided country after nearly two years of fighting the pandemic. He also underlined the difficult position in which the president finds himself as he seeks to respond aggressively to another public health threat.

The clash between the White House and public health officials Thursday night and Friday morning was a reminder that the United States remains vulnerable to a virus that is still spreading, unchecked across largely unvaccinated parts of the world, a problem that is far beyond the control of any global leader. And he reiterated the political dangers for Mr Biden and his party if a new wave of infections hinders the country’s economic recovery and returns to a sense of normalcy.

The president on Monday tried to reassure the public, ruling out a return to the types of nationwide closures and blockades that halted economic and social life last year. Instead, he said, the administration will fight the new variant with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more.

Mr Bidens called for more vaccinations as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidelines on Monday and urged all adults to get a booster vaccine when they are entitled, six months after the initial doses of Pfizer or Moderna or two months after their start. Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The agency had previously asked qualified people over the age of 50 and those living in long-term care settings to get a booster vaccine, but did not say everyone should do so.

In addition, Pfizer and BioNTech will ask federal regulators this week to authorize their booster injection for 16- and 17-year-olds, according to people familiar with the companies plan.

Scientists were working to make sure current tests could accurately detect the new variant, officials said; The administration was working with manufacturers to modify their vaccines and booster vaccines, if needed, Mr Biden said.

White House officials said the president will outline a detailed strategy for fighting the coronavirus this winter when he visits the National Institutes of Health on Thursday.

But significant risks remain, including the economies of nations.

Jerome H. Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, plans to tell lawmakers Tuesday that Omicron creates more economic uncertainty and the possibility of further inflation, according to a copy of his prepared remarks.

Bigger worries about the virus could reduce people’s willingness to work in person, which would slow progress in the job market and intensify supply chain disruptions, Mr Powell plans to say.

In his speech Monday, Mr. Biden promised he was sparing no effort, removing all obstacles to keeping the American people safe.

This promise came after some Republicans grasped the existence of another variant to attack the president. The Republican National Committee issued a statement saying Biden failed to shut down the virus as promised. Texas Representative Ronny Jackson, who served as President Donald J. Trumps physician at the White House, suggested that Omicron was created by liberals eager to impose further Covid restrictions.

White House officials dismissed the political criticism. Natalie Quillian, deputy response coordinator for Covid-19, said the potential dangers of the new variant were serious enough to prompt a host of meetings between officials from multiple agencies, calls to pharmaceutical companies and urgent messages to health officials in countries others.

There was a sense of unease, a sense that this felt different from the other variants, said Ms. Quillian. This had enough markers to differentiate on the level of anxiety we felt. We started in action on Thursday night and Friday.

The new variant changed Thanksgiving for administration officials and top scientists, who were scattered across the country for celebrations.

The variant was identified by South African scientists on Thursday afternoon as many U.S. officials sat down for dinner. Shortly before midnight, Dr. David A. Kessler, the chief science officer for the government response to the coronavirus, contacted a South African partnership, which sent a genomic sequence report on the variant.

Dr. Fauci and Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the CDC, was in contact with their counterparts in South Africa late on Thanksgiving Day. Jeff Zients, Covid-19 presidents response coordinator, and others spent most of the night making phone calls.

By Friday morning, it appeared that Mr. Zients was leaning towards travel restrictions, according to a person familiar with the discussions. At 10:30, Mr. Zients, Dr. Fauci and other senior scientists were informed by South Africans, including Tulio de Oliveira, a geneticist who helped identify the Omicron variant.

After Mr. Biden made the decision to impose the travel ban, State Department officials told diplomats in the affected countries, and administration officials began calling the airlines to inform them of the change. From the start of the discussion late Thursday, it took about eight hours to issue the presidential directive.

Even if we bought ourselves some time to understand this more, it was worth it, Ms. Quillian said. And this is a non-permanent action.

At the moment, travel restrictions are the main answer of presidents.

Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota who advised Mr. Biden during the presidential transition, said that while travel bans could help officials become aware of the situation, they offer only temporary benefits. He said he would not be surprised if the restrictions were lifted soon.

It’s like a crime scene, said Dr. Osterholm. When you go to a crime scene, what does the police do right away? They close everything in order to understand what is going on. But that does not mean they will keep things closed for the rest of the day or the rest of the week.

But some public health experts expressed outrage at the bans, saying they punished South Africa for doing what the United States expected from other countries: coronavirus tracking, identifying disturbing variants, and making information public.

Travel restrictions are precisely the wrong incentive to give places when you want them to share data, said Gregg Gonsalves, an activist and associate professor of epidemiology at Yale University. Do you want them to be looking for new options and you close your boundaries?

Mr Oliveira warned on Twitter on Monday that because the planes were no longer flying to South Africa, his lab could run out of some of the chemical ingredients known as reagents needed to test for the variant.

It would be bad if we could not answer the questions the world needs about #Omicron because of the travel ban! he wrote.

The new variant has again raised criticism that the Biden administration is not doing enough to vaccinate the rest of the world, although this effort is complicated by the reluctance of vaccines in other countries.

South Africa has fully vaccinated only 24 percent of its population, according to the Our World in Data project at Oxford University. It has a better vaccination rate than most countries on the continent, but has urged vaccine manufacturers to stop sending doses because of problems shooting in the wings, in part because of disruptions in distribution and reluctance.

Elsewhere in Africa, the vaccination rate is much lower; in some countries, even health care workers have had difficulty getting vaccines. of reported WHO Last week that only 27 percent of health workers in Africa were fully vaccinated.

The Biden administration has pledged to donate more than a billion doses to other nations; has so far shipped 275 million doses to 110 countries.

“Now we need the rest of the world to grow,” he said.

But activists and some global health experts said the administration needed to move faster, arguing that vaccine inequalities were the reason for the emergence of the variant.

African officials on Monday criticized the global effort to provide vaccines in their countries. stated in a joint statement that their low vaccination levels were the result of a lack of stable and reliable doses.

Most donations to date have been ad hoc, secured with little notice and short lifespan, they said in the statement. This has made it extremely challenging for countries to plan vaccination campaigns and increase absorption capacity.

This trend needs to change, they added.

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