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Data on Omicron’s severity is ‘encouraging’, says US health chief

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Early signals about the severity of the new Omicron coronavirus variant that has spread globally are “encouraging”, according to a top US health official, with booster jabs potentially offering a “considerable degree” of protection.

Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, acknowledged on Sunday that it was too early to know the full consequences of the new strain, but was optimistic about the initial data. Omicron has generated significant alarm since its emergence less than two weeks ago in South Africa and Botswana.

“We really gotta be careful before we make any determinations that it is less severe or really doesn’t cause any severe illness comparable to Delta, but thus far the signals are a bit encouraging,” he said in an interview with CNN. “It does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it.”

Now detected in about 40 countries and in at least 15 states across the US, Omicron was designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization soon after its identification. The strain has an unusually high number of genetic mutations that may mean it is more easily transmissible and more likely to bypass the protection provided by current vaccines or previous infections.

The Biden administration immediately imposed travel restrictions on eight African countries — measures, which European leaders and others also imposed, that sparked controversy and a sharp rebuke from the WHO, who said they “place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods”. 

Fauci on Sunday said those bans were being re-evaluated “on a daily basis” and that he hoped the US would be able to lift them “within a quite reasonable period of time”. 

The White House announced additional measures last week in a bid to stop the spread, including free rapid tests, an extended mask mandate on public transport and tighter testing requirements for international travellers.

Officials have also repeatedly encouraged vaccinated Americans to get the booster jab — a message again repeated by Fauci and other top officials on Sunday.

“Boosters are going to be really critical in addressing whether or not we’re going to be able to handle this,” he said. “If you get boosted . . . we feel certain that there will be some degree and maybe a considerable degree of protection against the Omicron variant if in fact it starts to take hold in a dominant way in this country.”

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged people to get vaccinated and take precautionary measures, but stopped short of supporting a nationwide mask mandate.

“I would rather see people get vaccinated, boosted, and follow our recommendations. I’d rather not have requirements in order to do so,” she told ABC News. “People should do this for themselves.”

Economic policymakers have also expressed concern about the new variant. Jay Powell, chair of the US Federal Reserve, warned last week it could exacerbate the supply-chain disruptions that have helped to push US inflation to its highest level in 30 years.

Loretta Mester, president of the Cleveland Fed, told the Financial Times on Thursday that it could also worsen worker shortages, which have stymied a swifter labour market recovery. US jobs growth slowed significantly last month, with just 210,000 positions created. That is less than half October’s pace and well short of economists’ expectations.

Despite the potential Omicron risks, the Fed appears poised to speed up withdrawal of its stimulus programme at its policy meeting this month, as it assumes a more aggressive stance against inflation and gives itself flexibility to raise interest rates sooner next year.

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