Omicron COVID variant may already be in America, Fauci says

The new Omicron variant of the coronavirus could already be in the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci said Saturday, as countries such as Israel implemented a strict new ban on foreigners and the UK took further steps to contain the “monstrous,” wildly contagious new strain. 

Fears rocketed globally as the variant, discovered only last week in South Africa, was newly detected in the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany and the Czech Republic. 

Israel said it planned to ban all foreigners from the country for two weeks, after confirming a single case caused by Omicron there and seven other suspected cases. 

It has not been detected in the US, but Fauci, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) director told “Weekend Today” that, “I would not be surprised if it is (here).” 

“When you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you’re already having travel-related cases that they’ve noted in Israel and Belgium and other places, when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over,” Fauci said. 

The US, beginning at 12:01 a.m. Monday, will impose a ban on travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. US citizens and permanent residents are exempt. 

The US State Department on Saturday formally warned Americans against traveling to South Africa and seven of its neighbors. 

The moves came after the World Health Organization Friday labeled Omicron a variant of concern, just as it had done for the delta variant. 

Travellers with their luggage arrive at Covid-19 Testing location
Dr. Fauci said the omicron variant is “ultimately going to go essentially all over,”
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

Experts are worried about how fast it may spread and whether it will cause people to become sicker than the existing delta strain of the virus. 

The lag in implementing the travel restrictions led some to say President Biden and Fauci were not acting quickly enough. 

“No worries, travel ban begins next week because you know, variants don’t spread on holiday weekends,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) tweeted Saturday

A healthcare worker takes a swab sample from a kid to test for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a testing centre in Brussels, Belgium November 27, 2021.
A healthcare worker takes a swab sample from a child to test for COVID-19 at a testing center in Brussels, Belgium on Nov. 27, 2021.
Johanna Geron/REUTERS

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) also tweeted Saturday that “Joe Biden and Tony Fauci push crushing restrictions on Americans—like masking two-year-olds—that are pointless. But when it comes to targeted travel bans to protect American citizens, it’s nothing but incompetence and half measures from this White House.” 

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-Schuylerville) called the Democrat hypocrites. 

“When President Trump took bold and decisive action in February 2020 to impose travel restrictions into the United States from coronavirus hot spots, Joe Biden attacked him, calling this decision a disgrace and xenophobic,” she said. 

The White House said airlines and countries needed time to put the restrictions into place. 

Biden was briefed on the latest on Omicron Saturday and senior health officials and the COVID response team, were monitoring the latest updates on the variant and in regular touch with health officials around the world, a White House official said. 

Vice President Kamala Harris said Saturday the administration will take it “one step at a time,” when asked about additional travel restrictions. 

“For now we’ve done what we think is necessary,” Harris said. 

A petrol attendant stands next to a newspaper headline in Pretoria, South Africa, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. As the world grapples with the emergence of the new variant of COVID-19, scientists in South Africa — where omicron was first identified — are scrambling to combat its spread across the country.
A petrol attendant stands next to a newspaper headline in Pretoria, South Africa, on Nov. 27 as the world grapples with the emergence of the Omicron variant.

In the UK, where two cases of the new variant were confirmed, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his top medical aides ordered all new arrivals to take a PCR test on their second day in the country and self-isolate until they receive a negative result. The country also added four more African countries to its travel ban. 

Face masks will be made mandatory again on public transportation in the UK and in stores, but not in restaurants. 

Meanwhile, some experts said closing borders is the wrong approach. 

“Once it’s out somewhere it’s out everywhere. That’s just how a transmissible respiratory virus works,” Dr. Monica Gandhi, director of the Center for AIDS Research at the University of California, San Francisco. 

Rep. Elise Stefanik was among those on the right calling out Democrats for being hypocritical about the upcoming travel ban.
Rep. Elise Stefanik was among those on the right calling out Democrats for being hypocritical about the upcoming travel ban.
Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/Shutte

Dr. Irwin Redlener, founding director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, said some variants look threatening but ultimately go away. 

“The conclusion is that its worrisome. It has the potential of being a viscous rapidly spreading variant,” Redlener said. “But there’s no reason for us to be alarmed yet. There is reason for us to pay a lot of attention to it.” 

Additional reporting by Conor Skelding and Post wire