The first inkling of a new, potentially fearsome threat arrived a few days ago, according to a report by The Washington Post. The latest variant of the coronavirus was on the move, the Biden administration was told. And, before long, evidence emerged that the variant — which would be dubbed omicron — carried worrisome mutations.
By Thanksgiving Day, frantic discussions were unfolding in Washington and in capitals around the globe about how to contain the potential menace. Those discussions, which would lead to travel restrictions and other measures, exposed long-simmering tensions about the United States and other nations appearing to punish the developing world and about stark differences in vaccination levels.
On Saturday, Covid-19 cases caused by the omicron variant were confirmed or suspected in a widening circle of nations, including Britain and Germany. The pharmaceutical companies whose vaccines had appeared to chart a path out of the pandemic expedited development of new formulations targeting the omicron variant.
“This is the highest level of alert we’ve ever been on, by far,” since devising the initial batch of vaccines last year, said Stephen Hoge, Moderna’s president. “What’s most scary about this virus is it’s managed to put all of its greatest hits into one [omicron] variant, and then has added maybe 10 mutations that we don’t even know what to think of yet.”
The frenzy of activity comes as the world waits to learn how far the new variant has spread and whether it can evade current vaccines — answers that are probably weeks away.
“We’re doing all these things, which may seem somewhat draconian,” Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s top coronavirus adviser, said in an interview. “It’s only because you want to be better safe than sorry. . . . You’ve got to prepare for the worst, and hope it’s not going to be the worst at all.”