ATLANTA - President Biden praised South Africa for quickly identifying a concerning new coronavirus variant and alerting the world.
The agency designated omicron a Variant of Concern (VOC) Friday, as countries issued travel restrictions and border closures to try to prevent the spread of the variant, which has been found in South African, Botswana and in travelers in 15 other countries.
U-S travel restrictions went into effect Monday, barring most travelers from South Africa and 7 other southern African countries.
President Joe Biden told reporters Monday the travel ban will not stop the variant from spreading into the US, but it will buy the country some time to prepare for it.
"If you are vaccinated but still worried about the new variant, get your booster," Mr. Biden says. "If you aren't vaccinated, get that shot. Go get that first shot."
The WHO warned Monday the omicron variant poses a very high risk to the world because it carries about 50 mutations never before seen together with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
About 30 of those mutations are on the spike protein, which the virus uses to grab onto and infects healthy cells.
President Biden says the US will likely see cases of the variant, but the country is in a much better place than it was a year ago.
"This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic," he says "We have the best vaccines in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists, and we're learning more every single day."
Dr. Felipe Lobelo, a physician and epidemiologist with Kaiser Permanente Georgia, says we will know more within days about whether omicron can spread more easily or make people sicker than the now-dominant delta variant, which triggered a major summer surge in infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
"The number of mutations, 50 or more, can sound scary, but we should not really jump to conclusions that that number of mutations leading to a more severe clinical disease," Dr. Lobelo says. "That could be the case, and obviously that is the concern. But, we don't know that for sure yet."
Dr. Lobelo says it is not clear whether omicron will overtake the delta variant or how well the COVID-19 vaccines will protect against the new variant.
"But, right now, what you can do is protect yourself from the risk that delta is posing in our population," Dr. Lobelo says. "Again, we are seeing the start of a winter surge here in Georgia and Atlanta. Even if omicron becomes something that is not going to replace delta, delta is still going to be be here."
Dr. Lobelo is urging people to wear masks in public indoor settings, avoid crowed, poorly ventilated spaces, stay six feet away from strangers and wash their hands often.