WASHINGTON — White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday that the new Omicron strain of the coronavirus would not require a variant-specific booster, which would have meant a fourth dose of the vaccine for some Americans. "Our booster vaccine regimens work against Omicron,” Fauci said at a press briefing of the White House pandemic response team. “At this point, there is no need for a variant-specific booster."
His comments clarified questions about what being fully vaccinated may mean in the coming weeks and months, as the new, more transmissible Omicron variant sweeps across the nation.
So far, full vaccination has meant two shots of an mRNA vaccine manufactured by Pfizer or Moderna, or a single shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which does not use the relatively new mRNA biotechnology. But some epidemiologists, including Fauci, have conceded that a third shot would eventually be necessary to constitute full vaccination.
The arrival of Omicron made some wonder if it would require a booster shot of its own, since it has a high number of mutations. And whether, more broadly, every new strain would involve a scramble for new vaccines, instead of vaccinations serving as an end to the pandemic, as many thought they were bound to be.
The latest on the Omicron variant
Fauci, in his remarks on Wednesday, touted studies that show Omicron evading a two-dose vaccine regime well but faring poorly against a booster shot. “Boosters reconstitute” immune defenses and provide “enhanced vaccine protection,” he said, especially when it comes to severe disease, which seems to be less frequent with the Omicron variant in the first place.
Encouraging news about the new strain’s virulence comes as Omicron moves swiftly to overtake the Delta variant. Because the newer variant appears to spread quickly but sicken mildly, some have argued that its presence is a potentially auspicious development. Public health officials are not eager to test out that premise in a nation where only 17 percent of the population is fully protected with a booster shot. Israel has been debating a fourth vaccine shot, though the Health Ministry there rejected that idea.
Speaking at the same briefing as Fauci, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, revealed that the variant has now been detected in 36 states. "We expect to see the proportion of Omicron cases here in the United States continue to grow in the coming weeks,” she said, even though it still represents only 3 percent of all new cases.
Even so, pandemic response team coordinator Jeff Zients vowed that the Biden administration would not push for the kinds of crippling lockdowns and closures that marked most of 2020 and much of 2021. “We know how to keep our kids in school and our businesses open,” he said, reiterating what President Biden said last week.
“And we’re not going to shut down our economy in any way,” Zients continued. “We are going to keep our schools and our businesses open.”
Taken together, the words of the top three pandemic-focused officials in the Biden administration outlined a strategy for the coming weeks, one that avoids the pessimism of 2020 but is also more restrained than the optimistic messaging of early summer. That strategy is predicated on making boosters universally available (children between the ages of 5 and 11 are eligible for vaccination but not yet booster shots) while also pushing for public and private institutions to stay open as infection rates continue to climb and some argue for new restrictions.
The administration believes that between the availability of rapid tests and vaccines, and the advent of highly effective therapeutics that prevent death and serious illness, public risk is low enough to obviate the need for new restrictions. It would like to enforce a vaccine mandate for private employers, but legal challenges have stalled that effort.
With the politics of the coronavirus pandemic remaining as fraught as ever, Biden must manage not only a genuine public health crisis but also one of mounting frustration, which his stagnating approval numbers appear to reflect. His vaccine mandates are snarled in court, while Republicans have used challenges to masking as a broader resistance to his authority.
The White House may never say so, but it is clearly coming to favor the thinking of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who recently said it was not worth inconveniencing all the state’s residents with a new mask mandate just because some refuse to get vaccinated. The vaccines remain exceptionally good at keeping people out of hospitals, yet some people have ideological or religious reasons for refusing the shot.
“Everybody had more than enough opportunity to get vaccinated,” Polis said last week in refusing to impose a new mask mandate for the entire state. The mayor of Washington, D.C., similarly held firm against reinstituting a mask mandate for the district in November, arguing that the vaccinated were safe from severe illness.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki has discounted how Polis spoke of the unvaccinated — “It’s really your own darn fault,” he said of unvaccinated people who fall ill — but not necessarily his argument. Biden himself, after all, had expressed the same sentiment earlier this fall, and not much more gently. “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin,” he told the unvaccinated in early September.
The vaccination rate has not risen nearly as much as the Biden administration had hoped, meaning that another pandemic winter is in the works. It is a grim reality, one that like every aspect of the pandemic is loaded with political significance. The White House has recently said it holds Republicans responsible for the pandemic’s persistence.
With a season of travel and large gatherings having begun, elected officials across the nation are laboring to avoid a repetition of last winter’s surge, aware that the political consequences could be crippling. Instead of preparing to shut down once more, they are trying to figure out how to live with the virus.