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Omicron’s Covid variant has spread to more than 50 countries and 19 states, CDC director says

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The omicron Covid-19 variant, which has led to worldwide travel restrictions and new vaccine mandates since its discovery in southern Africa last month, has now been found in 50 countries and 19 states in the United States, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said on Tuesday.

“While we are still working to understand the severity of Omicron and how it responds to therapeutics and vaccines, we assume that all of the same measures will provide some protection against Omicron, at least in part,” Walensky said during a White House press conference Covid-19, in which she repeated her call for vaccination.

Jeff Zients, who leads the White House’s Covid response effort, said vaccinations had risen to around 12.5 million in the last week, of which 7 million were booster shots.

“That’s the highest weekly total number of shots since May,” he said. “So we’re now vaccinating people in numbers that we haven’t seen since spring.”

White House senior medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said the scientists should have some data by the middle of next week showing how well today’s vaccines are holding up against the new variant, which contains dozens of mutations that generally make them more contagious.

“With Omicron we will be able to determine whether antibodies that are induced by all vaccines lose their effectiveness or not,” said Fauci of studies that examined both live viruses and “pseudoviruses”. “We also conduct animal studies to assess immune protection and the effectiveness of antiviral agents.”

He said “real world evidence” in epidemiology and clinical trials will definitely answer how communicable and severe the virus is and whether or not it can bypass vaccines.

Pointing out a chart showing a seven-day moving average of confirmed omicron cases per million people in South Africa, Fauci noted that it is now the predominant variant in the country. “The almost vertical curvature clearly suggests a high degree of portability,” he said.

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He said it was too early to determine the severity of the disease. While data from South Africa released over the weekend suggest that Omicron could cause milder disease, he warned, “However, this can be influenced by the fact that many in this particular cohort are young people.”

There is an increased risk of people who have recovered from the beta or delta variants of getting infected again with Omicron, he said. One study showed the risk of re-infection with Omicron tripled compared to other variants, according to a slide he shared with the group. This shows “again without definitive evidence that there is variation and even bypassing of immunity induced by other variants.”

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