Photo of Joe Biden

Remarks on the Coronavirus Omicron Variant and an Exchange With Reporters

November 29, 2021

The President. Good morning, folks. I hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving, able to get together with your family and friends. And it was great to see so many families getting together this Thanksgiving after being apart last year. And we have much to be grateful for as a nation.

When I was elected, I said I would always be honest with you. So today I want to take a few moments to talk about the new COVID variant first identified last week in Southern Africa. It's called the Omicron.

It is—and to their credit, the scientific community in South Africa quickly notified the world of the emergence of this new variant. This kind of transparency is to be encouraged and applauded because it increases our ability to respond quickly to any new threats. And that's exactly what we did.

The very day the World Health Organization identified the new variant, I took immediate steps to restrict travel from countries in Southern Africa. But while we have—that travel restrictions can slow the speed of Omicron, it cannot prevent it.

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. You have to get the shot. You have to get the booster if you're—sooner or later, we're going to see cases of this new variant here in the United States. We'll have to face this new threat just as we have faced those that have come before it.

Today there are three messages about the new variant that I want the American people to hear. First, this variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic. We have the best vaccine in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists. And we're learning more every single day.

And we'll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion. And we have more tools today to fight the variant than we've ever had before—from vaccines to boosters, to vaccines for children 5 years and older, and much more.

A year ago, America was floundering against the first variant of COVID. We beat that variant significantly, and then we got hit by a far more powerful threat: the Delta variant. But we took action, and now we're seeing deaths from Delta come down. We'll fight the you know—and look, we're going to fight and beat this new variant as well.

We're learning more about this new variant every single day. And as we learn more, we're going to share that information with the American people candidly and promptly.

Second, the best protection—I know you're tired of hearing me say this—the best protection against this new variant or any of the variants out there—the ones we've been dealing with already—is getting fully vaccinated and getting a booster shot. Most Americans are fully vaccinated, but not yet boosted.

If you're 18 years or over and got fully vaccinated before June the 1st, go get the booster shot today. They're free, and they're available at 80,000 locations coast to coast. A fully vaccinated boosted person is the most protected against COVID. Do not wait. Go get your booster if it's time for you to do so.

And if you are not vaccinated, now is the time to get vaccinated and take your children to be vaccinated. Every child age 5 or older can get safe, effective vaccines now.

While it will be a few weeks before we know everything we need to know about how strongly the existing vaccines protect against the new variant—Dr. Fauci, who is with me today, of our medical team, and believes that the vaccines will continue to provide a degree of protection against severe disease. And as an additional protections, please wear your masks when you're indoors in public settings, around other people. It protects you; it protects those around you.

Third, in the event—hopefully, unlikely—that updated vaccinations or boosters are needed to respond to this new variant, we will accelerate their development and deployment with every available tool. I want to reiterate: Dr. Fauci believes that the current vaccines provide at least some protection against the new variant and the boosters strengthen that protection significantly.

We do not yet believe that additional measures will be needed. But so that we are prepared, if needed, my team is already working with officials at Pfizer and Moderna and Johnson and Johnson to develop contingency plans for vaccines or boosters if needed.

And I will also direct the FDA and the CDC to use the fastest process available—without cutting any corners for safety—to get such vaccines approved and on the market if needed. And we'll do that the same way if—any modifications are needed or current treatments need—used to help those with—who get ill with the COVID virus.

Look, I'm sparing no effort and removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe. All of this is confusing to a lot of people. But if it's confusing to you, let me close with this simple message: If you are vaccinated, but still worried about the new variant, get your booster. If you aren't vaccinated, get that shot. Go get that first shot.

My team at the White House will provide me with daily updates this week. And on Thursday, I'll be putting forward a detailed strategy outlining how we're going to fight COVID this winter, not with shutdowns or lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing, and more.

I promised every American that there will be—always be the latest vaccines available and the booster shots available to them and for free and—everywhere available. Every single American, free of charge—and I will keep that commitment.

But we need to do more than vaccinate Americans. To beat the pandemic, we have to vaccinate the world as well. And 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.

Now we need the rest of the world to step up as well. Let me be clear: Not a single vaccine shot Americans ever send to the rest of the world will ever come at the expense of any American. I will always make sure that 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. The Delta variants and now the Omicron variant all emerged elsewhere in the world. So we can't let up until the world is vaccinated. We're protecting Americans by doing that as well.

As we continue this effort, let's remember where we stand. We're in a very different place as we enter the month of December this month compared to where we were last September—last Christmas.

Last Christmas, fewer than 1 percent of American adults were vaccinated. This Christmas, the number will be over 71 percent, including more than 86 percent of seniors. Last Christmas, our children were at risk without a vaccine. This Christmas, we have safe and effective vaccines for children ages 5 and older, with more than 19 million children and counting now vaccinated.

Last year, a majority of schools were closed. This year, 99 percent of our schools are open. And let me reiterate once more: We also now have booster shots that provide extra protection. They are free and convenient. There is still time to get your first two shots or your booster shot or get your children vaccinated before Christmas. All three are available and can be done before Christmas.

If you and your family are fully vaccinated, you can celebrate the holidays much more safely. And given where we were last year, that's a blessing that none of us should take for granted.

We're throwing everything we can at this virus, tracking it from every angle. And that's what we have to keep doing. That's how we reopened our country. That's how we reopened our businesses. That's how we reopened our schools. That's how, even with a pandemic, we've generated a record job creation, a record economic growth in this country.

We've moved forward in the face of COVID-19. We have moved forward in the face of the Delta variant. And we will move forward now in the face of the Omicron variant as well.

So thank you. May God bless our troops. And I hope you all have—I'll be speaking before then, but—a merry Christmas, as we approach it.

Questions.

Q. Should Americans be worried, sir?

The President. Let me call on Nancy [Nancy Cook] of Bloomberg.

U.S. Travel Restrictions From South Africa and Elsewhere/Coronavirus Omicron Variant/U.S. Provision of Coronavirus Vaccine Doses

Q. Thank you so much, President Biden. Do you think that other countries will be reluctant to report variants or other strains given the travel ban that you put so quickly on South Africa?

The President. No, I don't think so. I don't think that's what's going to happen. And I want to—again, the reason for the immediate travel ban is there were a significant number of cases, unlike any other country—well, the few around South Africa—in the world.

We needed time to give people an opportunity to say, "Get that vaccination now" before it heads—it's going to move around the world. I think it's almost inevitable there will be, at some point, that strain here in the United States.

But I don't think anyone is going to be reluctant to report.

We have also moved to do more. For example, we've provided more vaccines, as I said, than all other countries in the world combined. And we've provided significant vaccines as well to South Africa and that region. As a matter of fact, South Africa doesn't need any more vaccine; they're having trouble getting it out into people's arms, and the reluctance is there.

But no, I don't think it's going to have that effect.

Q. Mr. President, what is——

Q. So do you think the travel ban will be extended, sir?

Let me call on Alexis. Alexis.

Q. Alex?

Q. We've got two Alex's. [Laughter]

The President. Oh. Alex [Alexandra Alper] of Reuters.

Coronavirus Omicron Variant/Domestic Containment Efforts

Q. Yes. Thank you so much, Mr. President. I wanted to ask if the U.S. is doing anything to screen international travels for this variant, and what is being done, if anything, internally to see if the virus—this variant has already arrived.

The President. Well, there's a lot being done. I'm going to turn to Dr. Fauci to answer the last question about what's been done.

Doc.

National Institute of Allergy and Infection Diseases Director Anthony S. Fauci. Thank you, Mr. President. We already have in place—when people come into the United States, they have to be tested before they get on and they have to show vaccination documentation. So even before Omicron came in, we have a situation where we'll be able to test.

And in talking about testing, fortunately for us, the PCRs that we mostly use would pick up this very unusual variant that has a real large constellation of mutations—fortunately for us, that the PCRs that we do do pick it up.

The President. And we're following extremely closely—the medical community, the COVID team—any developments as it relates to how severe it is, how quickly it mutates—how quickly it spreads, how dangerous it is, et cetera. We have more work to do in that area.

And Wall Street Journal, Sabrina [Sabrina Siddiqui].

Coronavirus Prevention Efforts/Potential Additional U.S. Travel Restrictions

Q. Thank you. Thank you, Mr. President. The U.K., Europe, and a growing number of countries have confirmed cases of Omicron. Are you considering additional travel restrictions on countries where the variant has been detected?

And just separately, you've urged Americans to wear masks in indoor public spaces, but many States and cities, including Washington, DC, have lifted mask mandates. So are you calling on State and local and officials to reinstate mask mandates?

The President. With regard to the last question, the answer is, I encourage everyone to wear a mask when they're indoors in a crowded circumstance like we are right now and—unless you're eating or speaking at a microphone.

And secondly, the degree of the spread impacts on whether or not there is a need for any travel restriction. But that's not—I don't anticipate that at this point. And we'll see. We'll see where that works.

And so the other Alex doesn't have a heart attack, I want to call on him. Is it—is it——

Q. Yes——

Q. Her. [Laughter]

Q. Mr. President, hi.

Q. Two female Alex's.

Q. Two girl Alex's.

Q. Yes, no, I'm not an Alex, but I'd love to ask one question and then the other Alex.

Q. Can we both ask questions?

The President. Okay, let me ask the other Alex [Alex Gangitano, the Hill] and then you, sir.

Q. Thank you very much.

Coronavirus Vaccination Efforts/Coronavirus Omicron Variant

Q. Mr. President, is this the new normal that Americans should expect anticipating future potential variants? Should we expect intermittent travel restrictions and potential drops in the stock market going forward? Do you have any words of reassurance that this won't become the new normal?

And then for both you and Dr. Fauci: Dr. Fauci said earlier on CBS that lockdowns, shutdowns are off the table for restraining COVID going forward. You said that won't be part of your plan, on Thursday. But why is that? Why are you taking that off the table?

The President. Well, to answer your first question first, the answer is, I expect this not to be the new normal. I expect the new normal to be, everyone ends up getting vaccinated and the booster shot so we reduce the number of people who aren't protected to such a low degree that we're not seeing the spread of these viruses.

Now, we—it remains to be seen exactly what the elements of this particular strain are. But if they're as I hope, then it's not going to be fundamentally different than in the past.

And in terms of—what was the second part of the question?

Q. Are lockdowns off the table——

The President. Yes, for now. Yes.

Q. ——in dealing with this? Dr. Fauci, why is that?

The President. Well, because we're able to—if people are vaccinated and wear their masks, there's no need for the lockdowns.

Q. Sir, this——

The President. My last question.

Potential Domestic Travel Precautions

Q. Yes. Going on from that question, we've got the Christmas period coming up, a huge amount of travel. Would you give it any thought to domestic flights requiring tests or vaccines before people get on planes, the same as they do for international flights?

The President. Well, at this point, that's not been recommended. I would wait for my—the scientific community to give a recommendation on that.

U.S. Travel Restrictions From South Africa and Elsewhere/Coronavirus Omicron Variant

Q. Are travel restrictions too late to be effective, sir, given that Dr. Fauci says this new variant could already be here?

The President. You understand the point of the travel restriction—of the restrictions: to give us time to get people to get protection, to be vaccinated and get the booster. That's the reason for it.

Thank you all so very, very much. I appreciate it. Thank you.

And I'm sure I'll see you between now and Christmas, but hope you had a good Thanksgiving. Thanks.

NOTE: The President spoke at 12:01 p.m. in the Roosevelt Room at the White House.

Joseph R. Biden, Remarks on the Coronavirus Omicron Variant and an Exchange With Reporters Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/353574

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