The omicron coronavirus variant has now been detected in at least 24 countries in five of six global regions—and as of this afternoon, that includes the United States.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed this afternoon that the first US case was detected in a person in California who had returned to the US from South Africa on November 22 and tested positive on November 29. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco carried out genomic sequencing identifying the omicron variant in the person, and the CDC confirmed that sequencing.
The CDC reported that the person was fully vaccinated and had only mild symptoms that are improving. In a press briefing Wednesday afternoon, top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said it appeared the person had not yet received a booster shot. Public health experts suggest that booster shots will significantly improve protection against the new, still poorly understood variant.
All of the person’s close contacts are being followed, Fauci added, and all have tested negative so far.
The detection of omicron in the US is unsurprising to health officials. “It was just a matter of time before the case of omicron would be detected in the United States,” Fauci said. But, “we know what we need to do to protect people,” he added, listing vaccination, boosting, and masking.
A toxic mix
The detection bolsters criticism against hasty travel bans directed at southern Africa, where officials bravely brought the variant to international attention last week. Travel bans are generally not effective at preventing international spread of a disease and can take a heavy toll on the countries targeted. Meanwhile, enhanced global monitoring for omicron in recent days has only proven that the variant had already spread widely prior to travel bans being in place.
On November 30, the US enacted travel restrictions from the Republic of Botswana, the Kingdom of Eswatini, the Kingdom of Lesotho, the Republic of Malawi, the Republic of Mozambique, the Republic of Namibia, the Republic of South Africa, and the Republic of Zimbabwe. Since then, the variant has been detected in many other countries, from which the variant can just as easily spread.
“Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread of Omicron, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a press briefing earlier today, before the US announced the detection of omicron.
In addition to blasting punitive and ineffective travel bans, Dr. Tedros highlighted the inequities that led to the rise of omicron and continue to threaten global public health. “Globally, we have a toxic mix of low vaccine coverage, and very low testing—a recipe for breeding and amplifying variants,” Dr. Tedros said.
He also redirected attention away from omicron, the significance of which is still unclear. “We must not forget that we are already dealing with a highly transmissible, dangerous variant—the Delta variant, which currently accounts for almost all cases globally,” Dr. Tedros said. “We need to use the tools we already have to prevent transmission and save lives from delta… if countries and individuals don’t do what they need to do to stop transmission of delta, they won’t stop omicron either.”