Administration working with vaccine manufacturers to ‘develop contingency plans’ amid new variant

The Biden administration is coordinating with Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers to develop contingency plans in the event future coronavirus vaccines need to be modified, including to fight the Omicron variant, the White House’s Covid-19 response coordinator said Tuesday.

In the first briefing from the White House’s Covid-19 team since the variant was identified, coordinator Jeff Zients told reporters Tuesday that the administration believes “the current vaccines provided at least some protection against this variant and that boosters strengthen that protection significantly.”

However, he added, “In the event that additional measures are needed, we will be prepared.”

“We’re working with Pfizer, Moderna, and (Johnson & Johnson) to develop contingency plans for modifications to vaccines or boosters if they’re needed. And we will ensure that the (US Food and Drug Administration) and (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) review them as fast as possible while maintaining their rigorous scientific protocols,” Zients added.

The administration, Zients said, is planning for how to support the manufacturers through the process — if needed — and how to “rapidly get shots in arms.”

“And we know how to do that, given the experience we’ve had in the last year,” Zients said, adding that the administration would deploy federal pharmacy programs, set up mass vaccination sites and go to community health centers and clinics.

“All that type of planning is part of our contingency planning so we could get shots in arms efficiently and effectively,” he continued.

Zients also urged adults to receive their Covid-19 booster shots, a key point in the administration’s current strategy of protecting Americans from the emerging variant.

During the briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci — the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser — said Omicron looks very different from the now-dominant Delta variant. He specifically noted that the mutations in Omicron “have been associated with increased transmissibility and immune evasion, whereas other of the mutations have not yet been characterized as to their functional capability.”

Fauci said while the variant carries many mutations, vaccines are likely to protect people against severe disease at the least, even if the variant doesn’t stimulate the immune system in the same way as older variants do.

Research on the new variant is rapidly evolving.

On Monday, Fauci told CNN’s “The Lead” that while PCR Covid-19 detection tests and some rapid antigen tests could detect the new variant, it wasn’t clear whether all rapid tests could detect it. But Zients confirmed Tuesday that the FDA believes “the high-volume PCR and rapid antigen tests widely used in the US will be effective in detecting the variant.”

The severity and transmissibilty of the new variant are still being studied.

There are anecdotal reports suggesting that most cases of the Omicron variant Covid-19 have been mild so far. But scientists say it will take weeks to know how dangerous the new variant is.

Fauci told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Monday that the administration expects to know more about Omicron in about a week and a half.

Later this week, Biden is expected to unveil the federal strategy to address Covid-19 this winter. He has been clear that so far, further travel restrictions are not anticipated. And during a speech about the new variant on Monday, the President said he anticipates the US will approach Covid-19 this winter “not with shutdowns or lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing, and more.”

The Omicron variant hasn’t yet been detected in the United States. However, public health officials have repeatedly emphasized that the current travel restrictions on countries in southern Africa won’t necessarily prevent the variant’s arrival to the US. Rather, they will give the country some lead time to prepare for it.

“(T)ravel restrictions can slow the speed of Omicron, it cannot prevent it,” the President said on Monday. “But here’s what it does: It gives us time. It gives us time to take more actions, to move quicker, to make sure people understand you have to get your vaccine.”

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