Federal health officials say they are expanding the search for Omicron in the US

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Top federal health officials said Tuesday they were expanding a surveillance program at some of the largest U.S. airports as part of a comprehensive effort to identify and contain the first cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant in the United States.

dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a White House news conference that the agency was “actively looking” for the variant, but had so far found no case among the many positive virus samples around. the nation every week. Cases of the Delta variant, which sparked a devastating summer surge, still make up 99.9 percent of those monsters.

Four international airports — in New York, Atlanta, Newark and San Francisco — would improve screening when looking for possible Omicron cases, she said.

The new variant, which contains a shockingly high number of mutations, has sparked fears among scientists and health officials around the world about a more transmissible virus that is less susceptible to vaccines. dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s chief infectious disease expert, reiterated at the press conference that it was too early to truly understand how dangerous the variant could be.

It would likely be weeks before scientists studying the new virus can determine more about its properties, he warned. “We hope, and I think with good reason to feel good, that there will be some measure of protection,” added Dr. Fauci to it.

dr. Walensky said the CDC was exploring ways to make international travel safer, possibly by testing for the virus closer to a traveler’s flight and “additional testing after arrival and quarantine.” She said the CDC was working with airlines to collect passenger information that could be used for contact tracing if a case of Omicron is discovered.

dr. Walensky also described an ongoing domestic effort to identify the first cases of the variant, and said the CDC held regular talks with local health officials, public health organizations and state labs, who help rank samples.

The United States had already made significant strides this year in scaling up the number of virus samples examined for variants of potential concern, she said, sequencing about 80,000 samples each week and one in seven positive PCR test samples, suggesting it might be. won’t last long. before scientists find the virus.

dr. Fauci and Dr. Walensky continued to urge people to get their boosters, which they said would give people more protection in light of the new variant, when it arrives in the United States. Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House’s Covid-19 response coordinator, said more than 100 million fully vaccinated U.S. adults were eligible for the doses but had not yet received any.

A surge of protective antibodies after a booster shot would likely still be formidable against Omicron, which would help prevent serious illness, said Dr. Fauci, although the vaccine was developed to fight the original form of the coronavirus.

Mr Zients said the federal government was already thinking about what a vaccination campaign with a newly formulated injection might look like as drug companies study the possibility. “This includes discussions about the most appropriate regulatory route for assessment and authorizations,” he said.

dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said in a statement Tuesday that the agency was monitoring the new variant, citing guidelines released earlier this year on how to put new variant-specific vaccines on an accelerated timeline. would evaluate.

Two leading federal vaccine regulators who recently left the agency argued in a Washington Post opinion column this week that younger, healthier people with less urgent need for a booster dose may be better off waiting for a modified vaccine that more accurately targets a worrying new variant .

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