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Experts say more testing is urgently needed to spot and track the variant in the U.S.


Today, President Biden tried to reassure the country that his administration is doing everything possible to protect Americans against the omicron variant.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: 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.

KELLY: Scientists are trying to find out just how much of a threat the new variant poses. And joining us to help answer that is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right. Let's stick with President Biden and his remarks today. What else did he say?

STEIN: You know, the president's main message was, despite fears the omicron variant may get around the vaccines, the shots are still the best weapon people have to protect themselves.


BIDEN: 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.

STEIN: In fact, the CDC today broadened its recommendation for who should get boosters. CDC now says everyone age 18 and older should get a booster. Biden is also urging people to wear masks more, and he said he would unveil a new strategy on Thursday for protecting the country through a winter surge.

KELLY: OK. And it sounds like that strategy is going to be based on vaccines, boosters, wearing your mask. From a scientific point of view, is that the right strategy?

STEIN: Well, you know, first of all, there's a lot of concern that all those months of confusion about boosters - do people really need boosters, who exactly should get boosters - may make it harder now to convince people to get vaccinated and get boosted when it may be more important than ever. I talked about this with Dr. Kavita Patel at the Brookings Institution.

KAVITA PATEL: We rolled out boosters broadly right before Thanksgiving, you know, right when there's a crush of people trying to do things. And it's not easy to get everybody - you know, people are just confused about it. There's so much booster confusion.

STEIN: Now it's important to stress that no one really knows how good omicron may be in getting around the vaccines and how much boosters will help. But even if the vaccines aren't quite as good, they're probably still pretty good at keeping people from getting really sick, and getting boosted could help a lot.

KELLY: So Rob, the omicron variant - and let me just pause for a second because I gather part of what's confusing people is how you say it. We're going with omicron.

STEIN: That's right. Omicron.

KELLY: OK. Omicron variant - it's everywhere now. It's all over the world. Do we know when it might arrive in the U.S.?

STEIN: You know, Mary Louise, the assumption is that omicron may very well already be here, but, you know, we just haven't spotted it yet. You know, testing has gotten a lot better in this country, but it's still not really where it needs to be. The good news is that it looks like all the tests, both the fast home tests and the PCR tests, can spot omicron. But the FDA is checking this to make sure that's the case. And the CDC is now asking public health labs around the country to start using a specific PCR test that can distinguish whether someone is infected with delta or omicron and send a detailed analysis of those cases to the CDC to better track and understand this new variant. I talked about this with Dr. Ashish Jha at the Brown School of Public Health.

ASHISH JHA: All of the key questions about the variant are really dependent on us being able to identify the variant here in the U.S., but also tracking how it's spreading and in whom.

STEIN: And critics say the country still needs to be doing even more detailed genetic analyses of the samples of the virus in a much more organized and comprehensive way than what's going on right now.

KELLY: And what else? What else should the U.S. be doing to prepare for this variant, if indeed it is coming?

STEIN: Yeah. So, you know, public health experts - many that I've talked to say the CDC made a big mistake when it decided to only closely track infections in vaccinated people that cause serious illnesses and deaths, because a jump in mild breakthrough infections would be one of the first red flags that the omicron variant is spreading widely in this country and evading our immune systems and the vaccines. So they say it's even more crucial now to know exactly what's going on with those breakthroughs.

KELLY: And just briefly, Rob, what are their efforts to get ahead of it?

STEIN: A special rapid response team focused on variants organized by the federal government is scrambling to answer the big questions - how much faster does omicron spread? How well do the vaccines still work? Scientists are rushing to figure that out. I talked about this with Dr. David Kessler at the White House COVID response team.

DAVID KESSLER: We're collecting a lot of data, and we're doing a lot of testing and a lot of planning for any contingency. I feel comfortable that however this turns out, we can handle the various scenarios. But right now, I don't think anyone can tell you exactly what direction this is headed in.

STEIN: But he thinks we'll have answers in a couple of weeks.

KELLY: All righty (ph). NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thanks.

STEIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.