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Biden addresses nation on omicron variant as some travel bans to US take effect

With the COVID-19 omicron variant sending shockwaves around the world, President Joe Biden addressed the nation in his first formal remarks surrounding the new variant on Monday as new travel restrictions to the U.S. took effect.

“First, this variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” Biden said from the White House, urging Americans to remain calm. “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.”

He added, “Look, we’re going to fight and beat this new variant as well.”

The president announced Friday that starting this week, the U.S. will restrict travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. Experts predict it’s only a matter of time before the variant first detected in southern Africa is circulating in the U.S., a point Biden acknowledged.

“While we have said that travel restrictions can slow the speed of omicron, it cannot prevent it. Here’s what it does: it gives us time,” Biden said. “It gives us time to take more actions. To move quicker, to make sure people understand you have to get the vaccine. You have to get the shot. You have to get the booster.”

The omicron variant was first detected last week in Botswana and cases have since been confirmed in several countries including South Africa, Germany, Belgium, Japan and Canada. The World Health Organization (WHO) classified the variant as one of concern on Friday, and Biden has now received at least four briefings from his team on omicron.

While the president praised health officials in South Africa for their transparency in reporting the variant and acting quickly, he defended his own decision to institute travel restrictions for eight southern African countries and dismissed the idea that the travel ban will deter nations from reporting new cases.

“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,” he said. “It is almost inevitable, at some point, that the strain is here in the United States.”

Biden said he does not anticipate “shutdowns or lockdowns” but wants to ramp up vaccinations and testing in the coming months, following his release of a “six-pronged strategy” in September to fight the delta variant.

“I’ll be putting forward a detailed strategy outlining how we’ll fight COVID this winter. Not with shutdowns and lockdowns, but with widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing, and more,” Biden said.

In an interview with ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Monday morning, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who joined Biden for his White House remarks, argued omicron gives Americans more reason to get their COVID-19 booster shots — or for getting the jab if they haven’t been vaccinated already.

“We just need to make sure that we know we have tools against the virus in general,” Fauci said.

Fauci told Biden in a meeting on Sunday that it would likely take two weeks for a better picture of omicron’s transmissibility and severity, according to a White House readout of the meeting. Fauci said on ABC’s “This Week” that it will also take time to determine if the current COVID-19 vaccine is effective against the new variant.

“The pharmaceutical companies are preparing to make a specific booster for this, but we may not need that,” Fauci said on “Good Morning America.”

Biden said on Monday if the omicron variant prompts a need for a new vaccine, the White House is working with officials at Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans. But as of now, he does not expect additional action, like specialized boosters, will be necessary to combat omicron.

The president also seized the chance to ask Americans to mask up when indoors in public settings despite many localities having let their mask mandates expire.

“If you and your family are fully vaccinated, you can celebrate the holidays much more safely,” he said.

Biden is also meeting with CEOs from different business sectors amid the supply chain and inflation concerns in the afternoon.

The president continues to face low polling numbers and mounting political pressure heading into the holiday season with several crises converging, from the ongoing pandemic to supply chain woes and rising consumer prices.

ABC News’ Sarah Kolinkovsky and Bill Hutchinson contributed to this report.

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