Omicron has dipped its toe into the U.S., but COVID-19 booster shots can prevent it from gaining a stronger foothold, White House officials said at a briefing on Friday.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, opened the briefing by noting that Omicron is now in 25 states. She then reviewed an early release in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which cited preliminary data on 43 cases of Omicron from December 1 to 7.
Of these 43 cases, almost 60% were in younger adults ages 18 to 39, one-third had traveled internationally in the prior 2 weeks, and nearly 80% were fully vaccinated. Fourteen of these patients also received a booster dose, although six of those received the shot less than 14 days before symptom onset. Six of the cases involved people with a documented prior COVID infection.
There was one hospitalization and no deaths. The report also noted the earliest date of symptom onset was November 15 in someone who had traveled abroad.
Nearly all cases were symptomatic, with 89% reporting cough, 65% reporting fatigue, and 59% reporting congestion or runny nose.
“Although we don’t have all the answers on the Omicron variant, initial data suggest COVID-19 boosters can help to bolster protection against Omicron,” Walensky said.
She also cited two studies out of Israel that found a 90% reduction in mortality among older adults receiving boosters, and a “20-fold decrease in severe disease” for those who were boosted across age ranges.
Walensky added that over 50 million booster doses have been administered in the U.S., and praised the FDA for authorizing boosters for people ages 16 and 17.
Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, then reviewed the lab data that showed two doses of vaccine clearly do not work as well against Omicron, citing a “diminution” in protection with this regimen.
“That’s the sobering news,” Fauci said, but went on to give the “encouraging” news shared by Pfizer that boosters increase “neutralizing antibody titers by 25-fold,” calling it “a striking endorsement in the importance of boosting.”
In fact, he added, protection against Omicron with a booster is “essentially equivalent” to a typical two-dose vaccine series against the wild-type strain.
Still, he cautioned that while laboratory data “are generally good indications and hints of a clinical outcome, they don’t always reliably predict” clinical outcomes.
A reporter asked Walensky if she still had the same sense of “impending doom” as she did in the spring, given that cases are increasing. She said no, citing the new tools available to protect against the virus.
“Boosters are readily available at 80,000 sites, we have vaccinations for children down to age 5. Science informs the many things we can do [and] gives me a lot more faith in where we are currently,” she said.
Indeed, White House officials touted that there are now 200 million fully vaccinated Americans, and the U.S. has donated 300 million vaccines around the world, with boosters being administered to 1.1 million Americans per day. In the last month, 7 million shots were given to kids ages 5 to 11.
Walensky also reiterated that over 99% of COVID cases in the U.S. are from Delta, and Omicron accounts for less than 0.1% of current cases.