US President Joe Biden has joined calls by South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa for people to get vaccinated against the coronavirus amid concerns about the spread of the new Omicron variant.

The variant was first identified by scientists in South Africa and Biden has praised South Africa for rapidly informing the world.

US President Joe Biden media address on Omicron response:

Both Ramaphosa and Biden say vaccinations are the best way to combat the coronavirus as they are safe and highly effective in preventing severe illness.

WHO thanks SA, Botswana

The Director General of the World Health Organisation says South Africa and Botswana should be thanked for detecting, sequencing and reporting the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus so the info could be rapidly communicated to the rest of the world.

Addressing a special session of the World Health Assembly in Geneva, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus warned that the emergence of the new variant underlined just how perilous and precarious the current global situation remained.

“The emergence of the highly-mutated Omicron variant underlines just how perilous and precarious our situation is. South Africa and Botswana should be thanked for detecting, sequencing and reporting this variant, not penalized. Indeed, Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics: our current system disincentivizes countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores. We don’t yet know whether Omicron is associated with more transmission, more severe disease, more risk of reinfections, or more risk of evading vaccines. Scientists at WHO and around the world are working urgently to answer these questions.”

SABC’s Sherwyn Bryce-Pease has more on Biden’s statement about the Omicron variant: 

Quebec discovers first case

Quebec has discovered its first case of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, the Canadian province’s health minister said on Monday, bringing Canada’s total number of cases to three.

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé also told reporters at a briefing that 115 travelers coming from countries impacted by the new variant, primarily South Africa, were called and asked to take a new PCR test for COVID-19.

US steps up search for Omicron variant

The United States is enhancing its COVID-19 surveillance to distinguish domestic cases of the Omicron variant from the still-dominant Delta, the head of the association of state-run public health laboratories told Reuters on Monday.

The new variant, first identified in southern Africa last week, has since been detected in 10 other countries. US officials say it is only a matter of time before it turns up in the country.

Omicron has prompted new alarm due to an unusual number of mutations that suggest it may reduce vaccine protection, though much remains unknown. Countries worldwide are scrambling to understand the prevalence of the new version of coronavirus within their borders.

“I’m confident we’ll see it,” said Scott Becker, chief executive of the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL). “My assumption is we’re going to see it in the next couple of days.”

On Friday, members of the group made up of state and city public health laboratories met with White House officials for a briefing on the variant and US efforts to identify it, Becker said. An additional meeting with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is set for later on Monday.

“I can assure you that our public health officials here are in very close touch daily and in ongoing calls with all state health officials and public health partners,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.

One of the first steps will be to increase use of a ThermoFisher Inc COVID-19 molecular test to help identify potential cases, said Becker.

Other countries, including Belgium and Israel, have said they are using the ThermoFisher test. Its design allows it to detect a genetic mutation within the S gene, which can distinguish the Omicron variant from Delta, which currently accounts for more than 99.8% of coronavirus cases.

Omicron variant detected in 11 countries: Prof Salim Abdool Karim

Detecting COVID-19 cases in which the S-gene appears to drop out alerts lab officials that such samples should undergo additional sequencing to confirm the presence of Omicron.

“It gives us a signal, and then those specimens that have it will immediately go for sequencing,” Becker said.

Of the 68 public health labs doing sequencing in the United States, 56 have done a test run with the ThermoFisher system, and 35 are already using it.

“I expect the other 21 will be using it as of today,” Becker said.

Currently, the United States runs sequences on 93 000 COVID-19 tests a week, up sharply from 3 000 a week at the beginning of 2021, Becker said. Public health labs run between 15 000 and 20 000 of those per week, he said. -Additional reporting by Reuters