Health

Former FDA chief is sure that the South African Omicron variant is already in the US

Some health experts are sure that the South African Omicron variant is already in the United States, it just has not been detected yet.

Dr Scott Gottlieb, former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) told CBS News’ Face the Nation that the variant likely found its way into the U.S. before flights from seven south African nations were paused.

The restriction was instituted on Monday by President Biden in an effort to prevent the potentially vaccine evasive, highly infectious, variant from finding its way stateside.

Omicron was first detected in South Africa last week, and has since been found in more than a dozen countries, including the UK and Canada.

Dr Scott Gottlieb (pictured) believes that the Omicron COVID-19 variant is already in the U.S. and it just has not been sequenced yet

Gottlieb says that since so many people are flying into America and then testing positive for the virus, it is extremely likely at least one person brought the variant with them. Another expert, Dr Chris Thompson of Loyola Chicago, agrees. The U.S. halted travel from seven African nations starting Monday. Pictured: Travelers at Los Angeles International Airport on November 28

Gottlieb says that since so many people are flying into America and then testing positive for the virus, it is extremely likely at least one person brought the variant with them. Another expert, Dr Chris Thompson of Loyola Chicago, agrees. The U.S. halted travel from seven African nations starting Monday. Pictured: Travelers at Los Angeles International Airport on November 28

‘It’s almost definitely here already, just looking at the number of cases coming off planes this weekend. It’s almost a certainty that there have been cases that have gotten into the United States,’ Gottlieb said Sunday. 

He is not panicking, though. 

‘We’re in a much better place now than we were a year ago when [Beta] first arrived, or even when Delta first arrived,’ the former FDA chief, who now serves of the board of Pfizer, said. 

In order to detect variants of the virus, a small portion of positive PCR tests are sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for genetic sequencing.

The process of sequencing effectively uses a sample to make an accurate estimation of what variants are being circulated in the country. 

Currently, according to the CDC, almost every single new case in the U.S. is of the Delta variant, which has been a trend since the summer.

But not all cases are sequenced, though, meaning that if there are only a few cases here and there of a certain strain it is likely they are going undetected.

Dr Chris Thompson, an infectious diseases expert at Loyola Chicago, also told DailyMail.com that it is very likely the variant is currently in the U.S., but has not yet been detected.

Gottlieb notes that America’s ability to sequence positive cases has been expanded over the past year, which means it should take less time to find a case of Omicron.

‘We are sequencing about a hundred thousand cases a week, which is very good. It’s about 20% of all the diagnosed cases,’ he said.

‘CDC is also going to set up this week a new surveillance system specifically for this variant.’  

While he is warning Americans, he does not want people to overreact to the variant. 

Gottlieb does not believe that a recent surge in cases in the U.S. and some other countries is tied to the Omicron variant.

‘This probably isn’t that prevalent around the world,’ he said. 

Still, health officials are insisting that people take some precautions to protect themselves.

On Monday, the CDC changed its COVID-19 booster shot recommendation to include all American adults.

While everyone 18 or older in the U.S. was already eligible for the additional shot, the agency previously only recommended people 50 or older receive it.

The CDC has quickly changed its guidance as a new threat arose, though.

‘The recent emergence of the Omicron variant further emphasizes the importance of vaccination, boosters, and prevention efforts needed to protect against COVID-19,’ Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said in a statement.

‘Early data from South Africa suggest increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant, and scientists in the United States and around the world are urgently examining vaccine effectiveness related to this variant.’

President Biden also restricted travel into the United States from South Africa and six of its neighboring nations, joining a host of other countries to take the step.

Gottlieb called the move ‘drastic’ and believes there are other ways to control the spread of Omicron without banning travel.

‘We could have accomplished a lot of what we’re seeking to accomplish with these restrictions, perhaps by increasing requirements on travelers, requiring that they be vaccinated and also have a negative PCR test in the last 24 hours,’ he said. 

‘You know, these kinds of restrictions are going to reduce introductions that could buy us perhaps a couple of weeks, but we didn’t need the close off travel.’

He also said that South Africa is being ‘punished for doing the right thing’ by alerting the world that there was a new – potentially dangerous – variant, only to then get cut off from much of the rest of the world.


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