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Omicron Covid-19 variant may already be in US: Fauci

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Dr. Anthony Fauci (File photo)

The new Omicron variant of coronavirus may already be in the United States, says Dr. Anthony Fauci as the White House announced restrictions for travelers from eight African countries.

Speaking in an interview on Weekend TODAY Saturday, Fauci said he “would not be surprised” if the emerging Covid mutation had reached the country via plane travel.

"We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you're already having travel-related cases that they've noted in Israel and Belgium and other places, when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over," he said.

The new variant – called B.1.1.529 - has a spike protein that is significantly different to the one in the original coronavirus on which Covid-19 vaccines are based.

Its mutations are likely to evade the immune response generated both by vaccination and prior infection. Also, it has mutations associated with increased infectivity.

Omicron has been found in multiple countries after it was initially discovered in South Africa.

The Biden administration has said it will restrict travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi starting on Monday.

Fauci told Weekend TODAY that the travel restrictions on African nations are a way of buying time.

"The issue of blocking travel from a given country is to just give us time to assess it better," Fauci said. "That's the reason for doing that, not any reason to panic, but we want to give us some time to really fill in the blanks of what we don't know right now," the chief medical advisor to Biden said.

He went on say that public health experts are working to find answers to questions such as whether the new variant causes more severe diseases and whether it can evade protection from vaccines or treatments.

"It also has a bunch of mutations that would suggest it could evade the protection, for example, of monoclonal antibodies and perhaps even convalescent plasma for people who have been infected and recovered, and possibly vaccine. These are all maybes, but the suggestion is enough," Fauci said.

He urged people to continue to take precautions like wearing masks, social distance and avoid large, indoor gatherings.

"It is absolutely essential that unvaccinated people get vaccinated and that vaccinated people get boosters," Fauci said.

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