White House COVID task force discusses coronavirus' omicron variant
The White House COVID-19 Task Force provides an update on the pandemic in the U.S.
when you look at the molecular configuration of those particular variants, it suggests strongly that there's increased transmission compared with the original pandemic virus but it is difficult to infer what the relationship between this transmissibility is in Delta. Although you can suggest it might be more, we do not know until we see the dynamics of how this evolves. What about vaccine effectiveness? Now, obviously there's significant reductions in neutralizing title are possible and we say that because the mutations suggest immune evasion. But remember as with other variants, although partial immune escape may occur vaccines and particularly boosters give a level of anybody that even with variants like Delta give you a degree of cross protection, particularly against severe disease. So there's every reason to believe as we talk about boosters when you get a level high enough that you were going to get at least some degree of cross protection, particularly against severe disease. And what about disease severity? Again these are estimates and with a small number of cases it is very difficult to know whether or not this particular variant is going to result in severe disease, although some preliminary information from South africa suggests no unusual symptoms associated with variant. We do not know and it is too early to tell. Next slide and final slide, how do we address a micron? We've said it over and over again and we and it deserves repeating. If you're not vaccinated, get vaccinated, get boosted. If you are vaccinated, continue to use the mitigation methods namely masks, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces choose outdoors rather than indoors. Keep your distance, wash your hands, test and isolate if appropriate. Those are the things we have been doing. We need to keep doing them. I'll stop there and over to you. Dr walensky. Yeah thank you. Dr fashion and good afternoon everyone. As I've said before this virus is unpredictable and we must remain ready to be proactive as new data. New science and new variants evolve. One thing has become clear over the last 20 months. We cannot predict the future but we can be prepared for it. And we have been doing exactly that preparing for this moment. Today. I want to walk with through with you what we've been doing at CDC to prepare for emerging covid 19 variants. And what we are doing currently to address the new threat of the omicron variant. To be crystal clear. We have far more tools to fight the variant today than we had at this time last year. Today. We have increased our protection through vaccination for everyone five years and up. And we have vaccine booster doses for all adults to optimize that vaccine protection as dr Fauci just set Compared to earlier this year when we were sequencing about 8000 samples per week. We have increased our genomic sequencing capability and we are now sequencing approximately 80,000 samples per week. About one in every seven PCR positive cases and that's more than any other country. And we have increased our nation's testing capacity including expanding rapid testing for quick detection of cases. We have worked to address sped spread of infection through travel, during travel through masking, vaccination and pre departure testing for international passengers. And we are continuously working closely with our public health partners, both here in America and around the world to understand the evolving science of COVID-19 infection. Let me express how grateful we are to the South african government and to their expert scientists who have been open in their communication and willing to share their data with CbC and the entire world. Their collaboration has allowed us to make evidence-based decisions quickly and to ensure that we can protect as many people as possible from COVID-19. We are actively looking for the omicron variant right here in the United States. Right now there is no evidence of omicron in the United States, the delta variant remains the predominant circulating strain, representing 99.9% of all sequences sampled throughout the pandemic as noted above. CDC has continuously monitored variants and vastly expanded our capacity for genomic sequencing. Over the past nine months, we have received specimens from all 50 states plus Guam northern Mariana islands, Puerto, rico and the virgin islands and the district of Columbia. We're sequencing samples from these jurisdictions and from geographically diverse areas around the country, collaborating with state lands, academia and industry partners And our variant surveillance system has demonstrated we can reliably detect new variants from alpha in the start of 2021 to Delta. Over this past summer we are actively putting systems in place with local and state laboratories to make detection and sequencing even faster. Yeah, as we have done throughout the pandemic CDC is evaluating how to make international travel as safe as possible, including pre departure testing closer to the time of flight and considerations around additional post arrival testing and self quarantine. Currently, CDC is expanding a surveillance program with express check to d f k san Francisco, new york and Atlanta airports, four of the busiest international airports in the country. This program allows for increased covid testing for specific international arrivals, increasing our capacity to identify those with covid 19 on arrival to the United States and enhancing our surveillance for the omicron variant. Thanks to our updated travel policies Earlier this month, we are also actively working with the airlines to collect passenger information that can be used by CDC and local public health jurisdictions to enhance contact tracing and post arrival follow up should a case be identified in the traveler as we have done throughout the pandemic. We are holding regular even daily calls with local county and state health officials and our public health partners. These calls include state county and city health officials, State epidemiologists. State laboratory directors and partners from public health organizations and we are conveying the knowledge we have at CDC to these partners and we are relying on their local expertise to provide information back to us. CDC efforts throughout the pandemic to understand and address variants such as Delta have provided us a unique experience in planning, preparing and strategically responding to new variants as they emerge. We have the tools and surveillance in place to identify the omicron variant. We also have the tools to prevent a macron from increasing the strain on our society and our health care system. Evidence has repeatedly shown that prevention strategies work with over 80% of our nation's county still in substantial or high transmission CDC continues to recommend wearing a mask in public indoor studies in these areas, washing your hands frequently and physical distancing These methods work to prevent the spread of COVID-19, no matter the genetic sequence. And as CBC said yesterday, all individuals 18 and older should get boosted to strengthen that protection For the 45 million unvaccinated adults. Now is the time to get vaccinated. We also know that vaccination helps protect you, your loved ones and your community from COVID-19 and we fully anticipate this protection at least in part will be beneficial against on the chrome. We don't know everything we need to know yet about the only kind of variant but we know that vaccination is a safe and effective way to protect yourself from severe illness and complications from all known SARS COv two variants to date. Thank you. I'll now turn things back over to Jeff. Thank you. Doctors from the start this virus has been unpredictable and that's why we've been preparing for all scenarios following the science and acting aggressively to protect the american people, vaccines remain our most important tool in our fight against the virus. And as Dr Fauci said while it will take a few weeks to have a definitive information on the transmissibility severity and other characteristics of the new variant, existing vaccines are likely to continue to provide a degree of protection against severe illness. Today, nearly 60% of all Americans are fully vaccinated. We now have a vaccine to protect our kids with hundreds of thousands of Children getting vaccinated each day. And importantly we have boosters available to all adults for free at 80,000 locations across the country. More than 100 million adults are now eligible for a booster shot but have not yet gotten one. We're working with governors, pharmacies, community health centers and other partners to get these eligible individuals their booster shots. Our message is simple. If you were fully vaccinated before june go get a booster shot today. Getting boosted will give you the highest level of protection from covid and this new variant. If you're unvaccinated or if your Children are unvaccinated, the best thing you can do is get yourself and your kids their shots. It's the right thing to do for your own health and safety and from everyone around you in your community. The significant progress we've made on vaccinations and boosters, puts us in a much stronger position to face on Macron. We believe the current vaccines provide at least some protection against this variant and that boosters strengthen that protection significantly in the event that additional measures are needed. We will be prepared. We're working with Pfizer Moderna and J. And J to develop contingency plans for modifications to vaccines or boosters if they're needed. And we will ensure that the FDA and CDC review them as fast as possible while maintaining their rigorous scientific protocols. The president has been clear that we will spare no effort to protect people. We have significant testing capacity to detect cases and based on their preliminary review. The FDA believes the high volume Pcr and rapid antigen tests widely used in the U. S. Will be effective in detecting the variant. We also have therapeutics to treat those who do get Covid and our medical team is actively evaluating the efficacy of these therapeutics against the new variant so that we are prepared since the emergence of a micron last week. Public health officials and experts across the federal government have been working closely with the world's scientific community. We're learning more every day and we'll share that information with the public and later this week the president will release a strategy outlining how we plan to fight Covid this winter. Building on the progress we have made, Let me close with this. We are working around the clock to ensure we're doing everything we can to understand this new variant and protect the american people and continue on our path out of the pandemic. We need each of you to do your part as well. So if you're one of the 100 million individuals who are eligible for a booster get your booster. If you have kids get your kids vaccinated and if you're still unvaccinated, get your first shot. Now with that let's open it up for questions kevin. Thanks Jeff. Uh no there's a ton of questions today. So please keep your questions to one question as I always say. But especially today uh First let's go to Kaitlin Collins at CNN thanks to quick ones for you. One has your definition of fully vaccinated changed. And if not do you expect that? It will? And secondly several of you have said the travel restrictions that were put in place yesterday or to buy time to study this new area and evaluated. So what specifically are you doing with that time that you're buying to make sure that you're using it wisely. So fully vaccinated definition dr Wolinski. Yeah thank you Caitlin for that question. So we the definition of fully vaccinated has not changed. That's uh you know after your second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. After your single dose of the johnson and johnson vaccines we are absolutely encouraging those who are eligible for a boost. Six months after on those m RNA doses to get your boost. But we are not changing the definition of absolute vaccinate right now. Thank you. And Dr Fauci how we're using the time to learn more about the variant and prepare. Thank you Jeff. Thank you Caitlin. Well one of the things you do is you get the virus and you grow it or you put it into a modified form called a pseudo virus. And when you do that you can then get convalescent plasma monoclonal antibodies as well as sarah and antibodies that are induced by the vaccine to see if they neutralize the virus. That will give you a pretty good idea as to what the level of immune evasion is. As I mentioned in my brief comments, the molecular configurations of the mutations can give you a suggestion of immune evasion. But that's one of the things you can do is to take a look what the antibodies actually do. That process will take likely two weeks or more perhaps even sooner depending upon how well the virus grows and the isolates that we get. That's the first thing The second thing is you can do with dr walensky said about continuing the surveillance and trying to get a feel for what the situation is in the United States and in those countries in which there are a lot of cases like South africa the computational biologist and the evolutionary biologists are going to be getting a good feel as to what the competition of this virus would be with delta. Those are just a few of the things that will take a couple of weeks to a few weeks to learn and when we do find that we'll have a much better picture of what the challenges that's ahead of us. Thank you. The only thing I've had Caitlin is it's also really important time for those who have not gotten their boost for 100 million eligible americans to get their booster and for parents to get their kids their first shot or their second shot. And for those who adults who yet to get vaccinated for them to get their 1st and 2nd shots. So operationally want to make sure that people are doing all they can to protect themselves. Next question, mm hmm. Go to Aaron Bill upset. Spec news. I thanks for taking my questions. Um, first I was wondering are enough americans getting tested? Many people are taking rapid tests at home. Um, that data doesn't get to the lab's participating in surveillance. Is this hurting or limiting surveillance. And also the messaging is kind of confusing that the virus may evade our current vaccines or immunity from previous infections but that people who haven't yet should get vaccinated. Can you clarify why getting boosted or vaccinated with the vaccines currently available would potentially be protective against a Macron. Okay, uh, dr walensky on the first question about testing and surveillance. And then dr Fauci on the protection of the vaccines. Yeah, so we're doing you know about a million and a half PcR tests every week. Um and of course those rapid tests are really helpful from a public health standpoint. Um and many of those rapid tests that are positive are actually confirmed by PcR. So given that we have all that testing going on those tests now we're the PcR is we're doing about one in seven genomic sequencing. So are really broad amount of surveillance that is happening from a genomic sequencing standpoint. And there's really an important role of those rapid imaging tests so that people can continue to screen themselves and protect themselves. Dr Fauci, you know. That's an excellent question. So let me explain the vaccines that we used directed against the original, what we call ancestral strain or the Wuhan strain. So you get a certain level of antibodies that are specific against that strain, then we had the evolution of variants including for example the very problematic delta variant. So if you look at the mutations on the delta variant and you look at its function, you actually diminish somewhat the protection that is induced by the vaccines. However, when you get a high enough level of antibody and it's not only antibody, it's other elements of the immune response, particularly when you boost it, you get a level so high that even if the mutations of various variants diminish that level of protection. You are still within the range of some degree of protection and that's usually most manifested in protection against severe disease that leads to hospitalization. So when we say that although these mutations suggest a diminution of protection and a degree of immune evasion, you still from experience that we have with delta can make a reasonable conclusion that you would not eliminate all protection against this particular variant and that's the reason why we don't know what that degree of diminution of protection is gonna be. But we know that when you boost somebody you elevate your level of protection very high and we are hoping and I think with good reason to feel good that there will be some degree of protection. Therefore as we said, if you're unvaccinated, get vaccinated and if you're vaccinated get boosted. Next question Cheyenne Haslett at abc news. Mm. Hi thanks for taking my question. Um Director walensky, you talked about how much our surveillance program has improved but is there still work to be done? Is there a reason to be concerned that other countries have detected? Oh Macron, while the U. S. Has not or is it possible that it's actually not here? Um And then for Jeff you talked about this a bit but companies have said it'll take less than 100 days for a variant specific vaccine which is three months. But um can you clarify how much longer we should be saying the FDA and CDC process would make that whole um, the whole process. Thanks. Okay. Yeah, maybe I'll start china and say we have a really robust surveillance system right now. Certainly this has been detected in other countries but other countries also have different policies for international travelers. One of the things that's really robust here in the United States is our international travel policy where we have pre departure testing both for people who are unvaccinated but also for people who are vaccinated. So I do believe with all of our international travel policies that have helped to keep americans safe as well as for a really robust surveillance system, genomic surveillance system. We we do have detection mechanisms that we need in place in order to find it. I'm sure that when that occurs, good on the question about preparing for the possibility the contingency plan of a potential modification of the vaccine. The vaccine manufacturers are working on possible modifications to the vaccine and have been since late last week. Uh, these are you know, if needed basis are doctors and scientists across the government are already in discussions with the three manufacturers on this scenario And this includes conversations about the most appropriate regulatory pathway for review and authorizations, discussions about the tests that would be most appropriate to study the vaccine effectively and efficiently. These conversations are happening as we speak in the spirit of being prepared for any scenario and we will remain in close contact with the drug manufacturers through the days ahead as we learn more about the variant the company's current currently estimate that it would take a few months to prototype and manufacturer a modified vaccine or booster. And that does include to your question the time for FDA and CDC to do their evaluation. So the estimate of a few months is all inclusive. Next question, josh Wingrove bloom. Mhm. Thank you kindly. Dr Petrie, can you address the question of severity of disease from the cases that we know it's been sort of widely said that we shouldn't over interpret what has been seen as mild cases because some of these might be in younger people or be early on in the case uh sort of progression. Is that your view as well? In other words, what do we know so far? You said it's too early to tell what clues or breadcrumbs do we have about how severe these cases that we are seeing so far. Thank you. You know. Yeah, that's a good question. Be careful about breadcrumbs. It may not tell you what kind of loaf of bread you have because we really don't know. There have been, as you mentioned correctly, some anecdotal reports out of South africa that the physicians, mostly private physicians who've been seeing patients are seeing that they appear to be a less of a severity of illness. But you said quite correctly, most of those are younger individuals. We believe that it is too soon to tell of what the level of severity is. We dr walensky and I specifically asked our South African colleagues that on the most recent zoom call that we had and they agreed with us that it's too early to tell. They're hoping that it is going to across the board give a lower level of severity, but they don't know that right now. So they agree with us and we agree with them. That is just too early to make a definitive prediction about what the severity is going to be. We will know though, because they are really looking at this very carefully. That gets to the 2-4 weeks that I was talking about on one of the slides, we should have a much better idea within the next few weeks. Yeah, next question, Shannon Penny piece. NBC Hi, thanks for taking my question. I wanted to follow up on the timeline question one of my colleagues asked a moment ago, I understand the pharmaceutical companies say it would take several months for them to um you know, come up with a new vaccine. If that worst case scenario occurs under this worst case scenario where people would need to get another booster, another vaccine. What does the timeline look like for? How long it would take to have enough doses to re vaccinate the 300 millions of americans who are already vaccinated and what some of your planning for, how that would work. How that sort of worst case scenario would work if we were to need a new vaccine. So the few months estimate that I discuss not only includes the prototype, obviously the FDA and CDC uh authorization and recommendation, but also time to manufacture enough doses for the american public. That's obviously an estimate. And we we we are planning in that scenario not only for supporting the manufacturers through that process if needed, but also for how would we rapidly uh get shots in arms and we know how to do that given the experience we've had in the last year. And that is lessons learned about how we deploy the federal pharmacy program. Set up mass vaccination sites, go to community health centers and rural clinics. So all that type of planning is part of our contingency planning. So we could get shots in arms efficiently and effectively. Next question. All right, we have time for a couple of more questions. Let's go to Zeke Miller at baby. Mhm. Thanks for doing this. Um Jeff maybe provide an update on the duration of these travel restrictions at South South Africa and the countries in the region there. Um What metrics are you looking at to see when to ease those and then follow up with dr when these questions are answered to the Collins question before. Given what we've seen for the vaccination campaign over last year that you know, people don't just get a lot of people just don't get vaccines unless they're really forced to why isn't that the CDC taking sort of a step of changing the definition of fully vaccinated if boosters are as important as you say they are to prevent against delta, but also democrats. So in terms of the travel restrictions, you know, we will learn more about the variant as we've been discussing across the last half hour of transmissibility. The severity vaccine effectiveness will learn that across the short period of time uh and based on the data and the science, the medical team will make a recommendation on any changes to international travel policy. Dr Wolinski. Yeah. And what I would say um the guests that we are continuing to follow the science in this area. Certainly our recommendation for boosters that was updated yesterday is is related to Dr Fauci's comment that the more mutations you have, the more you'd like to bolster your immunity and as um that science evolves, we will look at whether we need to update our definition of fully vaccinated. Last question. All right, last question, let's go to Jeff Mason at Reuters. Thank you very much. Um This question is for Jeff and for dr Fauci, president biden yesterday referenced the fact that before the U. S. Can be fully protected? The rest of the world needs to be protected. I'm well aware of how many vaccine doses the U. S. Is donating. But my question for you, Jeff is what more is the United States going to do to get more vaccines to the rest of the world. And for dr Fauci, do you think the U. S. Is doing enough? Uh Dr Fauci do you wanna go first and then I'll follow. Well the question directly to me, you know the word enough is a very very uh unusual word because it really compared to what are we doing a lot. We are doing a lot. We're doing more than all the other countries of the world combined. That's really very important. We have promised or giving 1.1 plus billion doses. 275 million of which have already been given to 110 countries. One of the frustrating aspects of this is that the logistic capability of getting vaccines into people's arms in Southern African countries and in other lower middle income countries is really very difficult. And in fact many of the doses that have been shift have not been used. And other African countries on the African continent have actually told us not to ship any more vaccine because they have not been able to adequately utilize it. So again enough is a tough word. Are we doing a lot? We are doing an awful lot. Thank you Jay. Let me pick up there. We have sent the 275 million doses to the world. And as Dr. Fauci said that's more than All other countries in the world combined. And this includes 94 million to Africa as a continent And 13 million to southern African countries. I think the shots in arms piece that dr felt she talked about the last mile if you will is really important. And the U. S. State Department and U. S. A. I. D. Are leading the administration's effort to turn vaccines into vaccinations. They've helped train health workers to administer vaccines around the world. Run local media campaigns to answer questions and increase vaccine confidence and launch mobile vaccination clinics. The type that we have here in other countries specifically us I'd has deployed nearly $1.6 billion to countries in sub Saharan africa To fight the pandemic, including more than 61 million to South Africa alone. And this involves field hospitals, training health workers and supporting national campaigns to, as I mentioned earlier, national and local campaigns to build vaccine confidence and combat misinformation. So around the world, U. S. A. I. D. Is building data systems to track vaccine deployments. They're providing training to health workers and setting up vaccination sites will continue this vital work and it is increasingly important as there are greater and greater supply of vaccine around the world. I think just overall stepping back the United States is doing just what the president said we would do, which is leading the effort to vaccinate The world, including helping with that last mile but also by supplying the 1.2 billion doses to the world with no strings attached. These are all donated and will continue to share more and more doses. Uh, we're going to continue to help scale manufacturing both here and in other countries. Uh, and we're going to do all we can to get the world vaccinated because we know we're not safe here until the world is vaccinated and it's the right thing to do. So thank you for today's briefing. We look forward to briefing later in the week.