President Joe Biden on Monday announced plans to release a detailed plan to “fight Covid this winter” on Thursday, working to project calm amid rising global concerns over the new Omicron variant of Covid-19.
The president said his administration will take action against the Omicron variant “not with shutdowns or lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more.”
“This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” Biden told reporters at the White House.
The Omicron variant was first detected in South Africa but has spread quickly into Europe and has also been detected in Canada. The WHO classified the new strain of Covid-19 as a “variant of concern” on Friday due to a high number of mutations within the strain that could make the virus more contagious. Biden announced travel bans on South Africa and seven other countries only a few hours after WHO’s announcement Friday.
The travel bans have drawn criticism from some world leaders, including the South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, who said Sunday that the restrictions are “unjustified” and “unfairly discriminate” against South Africa and other nations in the continent’s southern regions. Biden said that the reason for the travel bans was to buy the U.S. time to take action and to encourage more people to get vaccinated.
“The objective here is not to punish, it is to protect the American people,” press secretary Jen Psaki said of the travel bans in a Monday briefing. “This is not going to prevent, it is going to delay. And that delay is going to help us have necessary time to do the research by our health and medical teams, to get more people vaccinated and get more people boosted. And he is always going to air on the side of protecting the American people.”
Psaki also said the travel restrictions from South Africa and other African countries and not from European countries are due to the fact that there are “hundreds, if not thousands” of cases of COVID-19 caused by the Omicron variant in South Africa.
The WHO and several countries, including South Africa, have cited vaccine inequality as reason for the spread of variants. Ramaphosa said Sunday that the Omicron variant is a “wake-up call” for vaccine inequality around the world. However, in his remarks, Biden said that the U.S. is leading the effort to distribute vaccines globally, and called on other countries to do more.
“We need to do more than vaccinate Americans,” Biden said. “To beat the pandemic, we have to vaccinate the world as well. America is leading that effort. We’ve shipped, for free, more vaccines to other countries than all other countries in the world combined — over 275 million vaccines to 110 countries.”
However, Biden also reiterated his commitment to fighting the pandemic in the U.S., stressing that vaccinating the world is also good for the U.S.
“Not a single vaccine shot Americans send to another part of the world will ever come at the expense of any American,” he said. “I will always make sure our people are protected first. But vaccinating the world is just one more tool in how we need to meet our moral obligation as Americans and how to best protect Americans as well.”
In a statement Friday, Biden called on leaders of the World Trade Organization to “waive intellectual property protections” on COVID-19 vaccines so shots could be manufactured around the world.
The president reiterated that harsher measures like shutdowns and lockdowns are off the table “for now … because if people are vaccinated and wearing their masks, there’s no need for lockdowns.”
While there are no confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the U.S. as of Monday afternoon, Biden stressed that it is “almost inevitable” that it will arrive here due to the variant’s highly transmissible nature.
Biden encouraged mask-wearing as a preventative measure against the virus, though he stopped short of encouraging state and local officials to reinstate mask mandates. Many states and cities, including Washington, D.C., have repealed their face-covering requirements.
“I encourage everyone to wear a mask when they’re indoors in a crowded circumstance,” he said.