December 1 Omicron coronavirus variant news

By Adam Renton, Brad Lendon, Sheena McKenzie, Ed Upright, Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya and Melissa Mahtani, CNN

Updated 12:02 a.m. ET, December 2, 2021
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9:28 p.m. ET, December 1, 2021

Covid-19 flight bans amount to "travel apartheid," says UN Secretary General

From CNN’s Caitlin Hu, Richard Roth and Philip Wang 

U Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday described widespread travel bans imposed on southern African countries over fears of the Omicron variant as “unacceptable,” likening the restrictions to apartheid.

“When we have now this virus everywhere, what is unacceptable is to have one part of the world that is one of the most vulnerable parts of the world economy condemned to a lockout, when they were the ones that revealed the existence of a new variant that, by the way, already existed in other parts of the world, including in Europe, as we know,” Guterres said during a news briefing in New York alongside African Union Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat. 

“We have the instruments to have safe travel. Let's use those instruments to avoid this kind of, allow me to say, travel apartheid, which I think is unacceptable,” Guterres added. 

South African scientists discovered the Omicron variant last week. It has since been identified in a growing number of countries including the United States, with scientists in the Netherlands confirming it was present in their country even before the South African announcement.

At the same Wednesday briefing, Faki Mahamat decried “stigmatization” of a vast swathe of the continent over the new variant. 

“For having been transparent on the question of the new variant, Omicron, the entirety of the southern Africa region has faced punishment, notably the possibility of blocking flights between the region and several countries,” he said.

US health officials have argued that travel bans help to “buy time.”

Vaccine solidarity: Guterres also called for a global plan to help African countries produce Covid-19 vaccines. 

With only 6% percent of Africa's population fully vaccinated, the people of the continent cannot be blamed for the “immorally low” level of vaccinations available to them, he said.

“As we have seen, low vaccination rates — combined with deeply unequal access to vaccines — are creating a breeding ground for variants,” Guterres said. 
8:54 p.m. ET, December 1, 2021

Soon: CNN's coronavirus town hall with guest Dr. Anthony Fauci

CNN's Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta will host a coronavirus town hall with special guest Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Watch live at 9 p.m. ET and submit your questions below:

6:08 p.m. ET, December 1, 2021

Omicron mutations may hurt effectiveness of Covid-19 antibody therapies, but it’s too soon to tell

From CNN's Virginia Langmaid

Mutations found in the Omicron variant of Covid-19 may impact the effectiveness of Covid-19 antibody therapies, but there is not enough data to know yet, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said Wednesday.

“It's possible with the monoclonal antibodies that they may be affected,” Murthy said in a discussion hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce. “It's certainly possible because we know that they target specific parts of the virus and if there are mutations of those parts of the virus in this new variant, then these monoclonal antibodies may not be able to attach as easily to the virus and may not be able to then activate and recruit the immune system to clear the virus,” he said.

Murthy said more information is needed to know for sure.

“The only way we'll know for sure is actually the test the monoclonal antibodies against the virus or pseudovirus in the laboratory. That's the work that’s underway," Murthy said.

Pseudoviruses are engineered viruses used to test the blood of volunteers in the lab.

More context: The surgeon general did say that two oral Covid-19 antiviral therapies may not be as affected by the mutations in the virus.

Pfizer and Merck have asked the US Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization for pills that reduce the risk that people will develop severe disease or die from Covid-19.

“There's still good reason to believe that the efficacy, the effectiveness of those oral medications may not be as significantly affected with this new variant,” Murthy said. “That’s sort of based on the biology of how they actually act against the virus,” he added.

Murthy added: “This is to say that there are reasons to be optimistic. There's still ways we can protect ourselves.”

5:43 p.m. ET, December 1, 2021

Omicron is now reported in the US. Here's what we know about the coronavirus variant.

From CNN's Haley Burton

The United States’ first confirmed case of the Omicron coronavirus variant has been reported in California.

If you're just reading in on today's news about the variant, here's a recap on how we got here:

Where it was first discovered: The Omicron strain was first discovered in South Africa and has since been detected in more than two dozen countries across the globe. You can find the most updated list of countries and their case counts here. 

How it entered the US: In a White House briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the first US Omicron case was detected in a person who traveled from South Africa to San Francisco on Nov. 22 and tested positive for Covid-19 on Nov. 29. The person was fully vaccinated and is experiencing "mild symptoms, which are improving at this point," Fauci said.

Officials are urging people to get vaccinated and booster shots: The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a statement Wednesday saying that the recent emergence of the Omicron variant "further emphasizes the importance of vaccination, boosters, and general prevention strategies needed to protect against Covid-19." It went on to say "everyone five and older should get vaccinated and boosters are recommended for everyone 18 years and older."

Fauci advised in a briefing Wednesday to not wait for variant-specific boosters.

“So right now, I would not be waiting. People say, ‘Well, if we're going to have a booster-specific vaccine, should we wait?’ If you are eligible – think six months with a double mRNA dose or two months for the J&J – get boosted now. We may not need a variant-specific boost. We're preparing for the possibility that we need a very specific boost and that's what the companies are doing,” Fauci added.

Want to learn more? CNN will host a global town hall and discuss the new Omicron coronavirus variant with Fauci tonight. Watch live at 9 p.m. ET.

3:29 p.m. ET, December 1, 2021

Do not wait for variant-specific boosters, Fauci advises

From CNN’s Maggie Fox

(Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
(Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

The arrival of the Omicron variant is another reason for people to get vaccinated and for the vaccinated to get booster doses now, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday.

In a White House news briefing, Fauci announced the first US case of Omicron and said the case was in an individual who traveled from South Africa on Nov. 22 and tested positive for Covid-19 on Nov. 29.

“I think what's happening now is another example of why it's important for people to get vaccinated,” Fauci told the news conference, adding that it was also important for vaccinated individuals to get their booster doses.

He said data shows antibody levels spike after a booster dose of any of the three vaccines authorized in the US.

“And people ask, why is that important? Because our experience with variants such as the Delta variant is that even though the vaccine isn't specifically targeted to the Delta variant, when you get a high enough level of an immune response, you get spillover protection even against a variant that the vaccine wasn't specifically directed at,” Fauci said. In other words, the immune response is so broad and strong that even if a variant evades the immune response, there’s enough extra power that people are still protected.

“And that's the reason why we feel even though we don't have a lot of data on it, there's every reason to believe that that kind of increase that you get with the boost would be helpful, at least in preventing severe disease of a variant like Omicron,” Fauci said.

“So right now, I would not be waiting. People say, ‘Well, if we're going to have a booster-specific vaccine, should we wait?’ If you are eligible – think six months with a double mRNA dose or two months for the J&J – get boosted now. We may not need a variant-specific boost. We're preparing for the possibility that we need a very specific boost and that's what the companies are doing,” Fauci added.

“But the mistake people would make is to say, 'Let me wait to see if we get one,'" he added.

3:10 p.m. ET, December 1, 2021

WHO advises certain high-risk groups to postpone travel in response to Omicron variant

From CNN's Virginia Langmaid

The World Health Organization advised people in certain groups at a higher risk of contracting Covid-19, including the unvaccinated and those over 60, to postpone travel to areas with community spread, in response to the newly identified Omicron variant.

“Persons who are unwell, or who have not been fully vaccinated or do not have proof of previous SARS-CoV-2 infection and are at increased risk of developing severe disease and dying, including people 60 years of age or older or those with comorbidities that present increased risk of severe COVID-19 (e.g. heart disease, cancer and diabetes) should be advised to postpone travel to areas with community transmission,” the WHO advised. 

The organization also recommended that countries use a “multi-layered risk mitigation approach” to reducing spread, which it says can include passenger screening, Covid-19 testing and quarantines. 

“Blanket travel bans will not prevent international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” the WHO said, adding that travel bans can “disincentivize” countries to report cases of the variant when they appear. 

3:27 p.m. ET, December 1, 2021

Fauci says travel ban was "needed to buy some time" for US to prepare for Omicron 

From CNN's Maggie Fox

Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday that "no one feels" a travel ban will prevent the Omicron variant from arriving in the US, but that it was "needed to buy some time" for the country to prepare and understand the situation.

Fauci announced the first US case of the Omicron variant had been detected in the US, in a traveler who had arrived from South Africa on Nov. 22 and tested positive Nov. 29. The traveler, who landed in California, had mild symptoms and was self-isolating.

The individual arrived before the US instituted measures aimed at slowing the entry of the new variant by limiting travel from several African nations. 

“No one feels – I certainly don't – that a travel ban is going to prevent people who are infected from coming to the United States,” Fauci told a White House news briefing.

“But we needed to buy some time to be able to prepare, understand what's going on,” added Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Biden and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“What is the nature of this infection? What is the nature of the transmissibility? And we wanted to make sure that we didn't all of a sudden say, ‘It's like anything else, don't worry about it,’ and then all of a sudden, something unfolds in front of you that you're really not prepared for,” he added. “So we look at this is a temporary measure.”

 

3:10 p.m. ET, December 1, 2021

"Get vaccinated for goodness' sakes," San Francisco health official says after Omicron case detected in city

San Francisco Director of Public Health Dr. Grant Colfax said the identification of the United State's first Omicron coronavirus variant case in the city "is cause for concern, but is also certainly not a cause for us to panic."

"With regard to the case itself, the person recently traveled to South Africa and developed symptoms upon their return. And they did the right thing and got tested and reported their travel history. They have received a full dose of the Moderna vaccine, but no booster. They had mild symptoms and thankfully have now recovered," Colfax said.

Contacts to the individual have and are being notified by the city health department, he said.

Colfax said the city is "relatively well positioned" to respond to variants, and he pleaded with residents to get vaccinated and receive booster shots.

"Most experts that I have spoken to believe that the vaccines will still be of critical importance in protecting ourselves, our families and our community. So our message is the same as it was yesterday: To best protect against this variant, get vaccinated for goodness' sakes, if you have not been vaccinated. Get your booster if you're eligible. Continue to wear those masks inside where required," he said.

2:58 p.m. ET, December 1, 2021

US will react to Omicron "with science and speed," White House says

From CNN's Betsy Klein

White House Covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said the US is prepared to meet the challenge of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 “with science and speed” upon its detection in the US Wednesday. 

“This new variant is cause for continued vigilance, not panic. We know what it takes to limit the spread of COVID: Get vaccinated, get boosted, and take public health measures like masking and distancing,” Zients said in a statement. 

Earlier today, the first confirmed case of the Omicron coronavirus variant was identified in California. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the case was in a person who traveled from South Africa on Nov. 22 and tested positive for Covid-19 on Nov. 29.

That person, Fauci said, is self-quarantining and close contacts have tested negative for coronavirus so far.