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Soon: Biden Speaks on New Coronavirus Variant; President Biden Speaks on Omicron Variant after Briefing from Top Health Officials; Federal Officials Bracing for First Detection of Omicron Coronavirus Variant in the U.S.; Biden: Sooner or Later Omicron Variant will be in U.S.; Joe Biden: Don't Believe Shutdowns or Lockdowns will be Needed. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired November 29, 2021 - 12:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: But we don't know - what we do. But the president did put new travel restrictions in place already as precaution. And the Biden COVID team now along with their global colleagues rushing to study how transmissible and how deadly this new variant is?

Here's one giant question. Does the new mutation evade the COVID vaccines defenses? Let's get straight to the White House and our Chief White House Correspondent, Kaitlan Collins. Kaitlan, we'll hear from the president any second?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, the White House did just give a two minute warning, John. So you'll see the president come out there any moment now to provide an update after he got his own update from his COVID-19 team earlier this morning.

That's the third update he's gotten in recent days on this new Omicron variant, of course, and the concerns over it and exactly what you've laid out there, what they don't know? So don't expect the president to come out and unveil a lot of specifics about this, because you heard from Dr. Anthony Fauci this morning, saying they think it's going to be a week at best, maybe two weeks before they know more about this.

And so what you'll likely see the president come out and do based on what we've heard from officials is come out and urge a sense of caution, a sense of awareness, as we are waiting on the details of this. And of course, also, this comes as the president is going to be speaking the day that these new travel restrictions the U.S. is implementing for South Africa and seven of its neighboring countries are going to be going into effect.

So that is something the president could also speak about what was behind that decision that he made last week, right after the Thanksgiving holiday to put those measures in place, which the White House is essentially saying is only a modest step. It's not of course going to prevent the variant from spreading, but it will potentially help contain it to a degree while scientists are still evaluating it.

And so that's going to be a big aspect of this as well. But we should note, John one thing, officials are essentially bracing for the first Omicron variant to be detected here in the United States. They have been very candid in recent days that it likely could already be here in the United States, they just haven't found it yet.

The CDC is working on that, in the meantime, sequencing these variants of the virus. Of course, there's President Biden.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving, able to get together with your family and friends. And it was great to see so many families getting together this Thanksgiving after being apart last year.

And we have much to be grateful for as a nation. When I was elected, I said I would always be honest with you. So today I want to take a few moments to talk about the new COVID variant first identified last week in southern Africa. It's called the Omicron. It is the - 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. And that's exactly what we did. The very day the World Health Organization identified the new variant, I took immediate steps to restrict travel from countries in Southern Africa.

But while we had that travel restrictions can slow the speed of Omicron it cannot be prevented. But here's what it does. It gives us time gives us time to take more actions. To move quicker to make sure people understand you have to get your vaccine, you have to get the shot; you have to get to get the booster.

The sooner or later, we're going to see cases of this new variant here in the United States will have to face this new threat just as we face those that come before it. Today, there are three messages about the new variant that I want the American people to hear.

First, 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 will fight this variant with scientific and, and knowledgeable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion.

Can we have more tools today to fight the variant than we've ever had before from vaccines to boosters to vaccines for Children five years and older and much more? A year ago, America was floundering against the first variant of COVID. We beat that variant significantly. And then we got hit by a far more powerful threat, the Delta variant.

But we took action, and now we're seeing - Delta comes down. We'll fight them. And look we're going to fight and beat this new variant as well. We're learning more about this new variant every single day. And as we learn more, we're going to share that information with American people candidly and promptly.

Second, the best protection I know you're tired of me saying this, the best protection against this new variant or any of the variants out there, but once we've been dealing with already is getting fully vaccinated and getting a booster shot.

Most Americans are fully vaccinated but not yet boosted. If you're 18 years or over, and got fully vaccinated before June 1st, go get the booster shot today.


They're free and they're available at 80,000 locations coast-to-coast. A fully vaccinated booster person is the most protected against COVID. Do not wait; go get your booster if it's time for you to do so. And if you are not vaccinated, now's the time to get vaccinated and take your children to be vaccinated.

Every child at age five or older can get safe effective vaccines now. While it will be a few weeks before we know everything we need to know about how strongly the existing vaccines protect against new variant? Dr. Fauci is with me today and our medical team, and then believe that the vaccines will continue to provide a degree of protection against severe disease.

And as additional protections, please wear your mask when you're indoors, in public settings around other people. It protects you, it protects those around you. Third, in the event, hopefully unlikely that updated vaccinations or boosters are needed to respond to this new variant, we will accelerate their development and deployment with every available tool.

I want to reiterate, Dr. Fauci believes that the current vaccines provide at least some protection against new variant and the booster strengthen that protection significantly. We do not yet believe that additional measures will be needed but so that we are prepared, if needed my team is already working with officials at Pfizer, Modern and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans for vaccines or boosters, if needed.

And I will also direct the FDA and the CDC to use the fastest process available without cutting any corners for safety, to get such vaccines approved and on the market, if needed. And we'll do that the same way any modifications are needed or current treatments need us to help those with who get ill with the COVID virus.

Look, I'm sparing no effort, and removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe. All of this is confusing to a lot of people but if it's confusing to do let me close with this simple message. If you are vaccinated, but still worried about the new variant, get your booster. If you weren't vaccinated, get that shot. Go get that first shot.

My team at the White House is providing me with daily updates this week. On Thursday, I'll be putting forward a detailed strategy outline how we're going to fight COVID this winter, not with shutdowns or lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more.

I promised every American that there will be always be the latest vaccines available and the booster shots available to them and for free, and everywhere available, every single American free of charge, and I will keep that commitment.

But we need to do more than vaccinated Americans. To beat the pandemic, we have to vaccinate the world as well. And America's leading that effort. We've shipped for free, more vaccines, other countries than all other countries in the world combined over 275 million vaccines to 110 countries.

Now we need the rest of the world to step up as well. Let me be clear, not a single vaccine shot Americans ever sent to the rest of the world will ever come at the expense of any American; I will always make sure that our people are protected first.

But vaccinating the world is just one more tool, and how we need to meet our moral obligation as Americans and how to best protect Americans as well. The Delta variants and now the Omicron variant all emerged elsewhere in the world.

So we can't let up until the world is vaccinated. We're protecting Americans by doing that as well. As we continue this effort and let's remember where we stand we're in a very different place as we entered the month of December this month, compared to where we were last September - last Christmas.

Last Christmas fewer than 1 percent of American adults were vaccinated. This Christmas the number will be over 71 percent including more than 86 percent of seniors. Last Christmas our children are at risk without a vaccine. This Christmas we have safe and effective vaccines for children ages five and older.

With more than 19 million children and counting now vaccinated last year. A majority of schools were closed this year 99 percent of our schools are open. Let me reiterate once more. We also now have booster shots that provide extra protection they're free and convenient.


There is still time to get your first two shots or your booster shot or get your children vaccinated before Christmas, all three are available and can be done before Christmas. If you and your family are fully vaccinated, you can celebrate the holidays much more safely. And given where we were last year, that's a blessing that none of us should take for granted.

We're throwing everything we can at this virus, tracking it from every angle. And that's what we have to keep doing. That's how we reopened our country. That's how we reopen our businesses. That's how we reopen our schools that's how even with the pandemic we've generated a record job creation, a record economic growth in this country.

We've moved forward in the face of COVID-19. We have moved forward in the face of the Delta variant. And we move forward now in the face the Omicron variant as well. So thank you and God bless our troops. And I hope you all have, I'll be speaking before them, but a merry Christmas as we approach it. Questions?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: --sir? BIDEN: Let me call on Nancy --.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you so much, President Biden. Do you think that other countries will be reluctant to report variants or other strains, given the travel ban that you put so quickly on South Africa?

BIDEN: No, I don't think so. I don't think that's what's going to happen. And I want to again; the reason for the immediate travel ban is there were a significant number of cases, unlike any other country, or other few around in South Africa, in the world.

We needed time to give people an opportunity to say get that vaccination now, before it had just going to move around the world. I think it's almost inevitable there will be at some point that that strain here in the United States. But I don't - I don't think anyone's going to be reluctant to report. We have also moved to do more.

For example, we've provided more vaccines, as I said, than all other countries in the world combined. And we've provided significant vaccines as well to South Africa in that region. Matter of fact, South Africa doesn't need any more vaccine. They're having trouble getting it out into people's arms. And the reluctance is there. But no, I don't think its going to have that effect.


BIDEN: Let me call Alexis (ph)?


BIDEN: Alex from Reuters.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, thank you so much, Mr. President. I wanted to ask if the U.S. is doing anything to screen international travels for this variant and what is being done, if anything internally to see if the virus this variant has already arrived?

BIDEN: Well, there's a lot being done. I'm going to turn to Dr. Fauci to answer the last question about what's being done.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF MEDICAL ADVISOR: Thank you, Mr. President. We already have in place when people come into the United States, they have to be tested before they get on and they have to show vaccination documentation.

So even before Omicron came in, we have a situation where we'll be able to test. And in talking about testing fortunately for us, the PCRs that we mostly use, would pick up this very unusual variant that has a real large constellation of mutations fortunately for us that the PCR is that we do pick it up.

BIDEN: And we're following extremely closely the medical community, the COVID team, any developments as it relates to how severe it is? How quickly mute - how quickly it spreads? How dangerous is it et cetera? We have more work to do in that area and Wall Street Journal --. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you, Mr. President. The UK, Europe and a growing number of countries have confirmed cases of Omicron. Are you considering additional travel restrictions on countries where the variant has been detected?

And just separately, you urged Americans to wear masks in indoor public spaces, but many states and cities including Washington, D.C., had lifted their mask mandates? Are you calling on state and local officials to reinstate mask mandates?

BIDEN: With regard to the last question, the answer is, I encourage everyone to wear a mask when they're indoors in a crowded circumstance like we are right now. And unless you're eating or speaking at a microphone, and secondly, the degree the spread impacts on whether or not there is the need for any travel restriction. But that's not I don't anticipate that at this point. And we'll see. We'll see where that works.


And so the other Alex doesn't have a heart attack, I want to call on him.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. President, is this --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm not an Alex but I'd love ask one more question.

BIDEN: OK. Let me as the other Alex and then.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. President is this the new normal that Americans should expect anticipating future potential variants? Should we expect intermittent travel restrictions and potential drops in the stock market going forward? Do you have any words of reassurance that this won't become the new normal?

And then for both you and Dr. Fauci, Dr. Fauci said earlier on CBS that lockdown shutdowns are off the table for restraining COVID going forward? You said that won't be part of your plan on Thursday. But why is that? Why are you taking that off the table?

BIDEN: Well, to answer your first question first. The answer is I expect this not to be the new normal. I expect the new normal to be everyone ends up getting vaccinated with a booster shot. So we reduce the number of people who aren't protected to such a low degree that we're not seeing the spread of these viruses.

Now, we may be seeing exactly what the elements of this particular strain are. But if as I hope then it's not going to be fundamentally different than in the past. And in terms of what was the second part of the question --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are lockdowns off the table?

BIDEN: Yes, for now. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why is that? BIDEN: Well, because we're able to if people are vaccinated and wear their masks, there's no need for lockdowns. My last question--

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, going on from that question. We've got the Christmas period coming up huge amount of travel. Would you give any thought to domestic flights requiring tests or vaccine for people get on planes the same way as they do for international flights?

BIDEN: With this point that's not been recommended. I would make for my scientific community to give me a recommendation on that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are travel restrictions too late to be effective, sir, given the Dr. Fauci says this new variant could already be here?

BIDEN: Do you understand the point of the restriction? To give us time to get people to get protection to be vaccinated and get the booster that's the reason for it. Thank you all so very, very much. I appreciate it. Thank you. And I'm sure I'll see between now and Christmas but hope you had a good Thanksgiving.

KING: President of the United States speaking at the White House just shy of 20 minutes speaking about the new OMICRON Coronavirus variant and steps the administration is taking. The president number one says this is a time for calm not panic for concern, not panic, he said not for chaos and confusion.

He also said that he believes pending more data coming in over the next coming weeks that do not yet believe any additional measures are necessary by that the president said bluntly at the end there he does not believe that even if this new variant begins to spread in the United States will be any need for economic lock downs or the lack of that.

He also said that he was not going to get in the face of local governments that have lifted mask mandates that but that all Americans should use common sense and wear a mask anyway, when they're indoor in crowded spaces.

Let's bring in our Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins, who was listening. Kaitlan part of this challenge for the president is public health. And part of it is frankly psychology as Americans hear there's a new variant spreading around the globe just before the Christmas season.

COLLINS: Yes, I think it was notable that the president entered the room there saying he wanted to be honest with people about what we know. But really, John, of course, what we don't know about this.

And so what he did say there that was notable was saying that on Thursday, he is going to give a speech talking not just about the Omicron variant, but also generally what this winter is going to look like when it comes to COVID-19 in the United States.

And he says that does not mean any more lockdowns or shutdowns, he does not anticipate that and instead said the path to victory, there is going to be a going to consist of vaccinations booster and more testing. Of course, that is something that you've heard from health officials a lot since we started talking about this new variant last week, which is saying that there is not enough testing being done in the United States right now.

So that is going to be a plan that you hear from President Biden, he says on Thursday until then he is going to continue to get these daily updates from his team as they are waiting to learn more about this variant.

And whether or not it causes more severe disease and whether or not it can evade the vaccines, which of course, have been the two key questions here. President Biden cited Dr. Fauci repeatedly saying that right now, it still appears that the vaccines are very effective.

Of course, they are waiting on more data to figure out what it looks like with this variant. But I thought one of the most notable things the president said there, John was we do not believe that additional measures will be needed when it comes to this variant.

But he says that they are in talks with Moderna and Pfizer about potential contingency plans, if that does change, and if that does become the case. And so in the meanwhile, as you noted, he said this is not a time for panic, but a time for concern. And he urged people to go get vaccinated if they have not done so yet.

And also to go get a booster shot because he talked about the number of millions of people in the United States who have gotten that vaccine but have not yet gotten the booster shot. And so John he said if you got your second shot before June 1st you need to go and get a booster.


COLLINS: And you are eligible and you should go get one and you should go and get your children vaccinated as well. So pushing that, of course, John and talking about what the broader scope of this is going to look like as they are waiting to find out more details about this.

And, of course, one we should note the travel restrictions, which have gotten a lot of criticism from South Africa and other nations, not just directed at the U.S., but all the countries that you've seen put these in place over the last several days.

President Biden said there he does not anticipate there are going to be more travel restrictions put in place but said that those put that one into place, starting today, essentially will by scientists more time to evaluate this new variant.

KING: Kaitlan Collins live from the White House I appreciate following the president. Let's bring in now to get some expertise and insights Dr. William Schaffner. He's Infectious Disease Professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center; Dr. Schaffner grateful for your time on this important day. Give us - this is your wheelhouse infectious diseases.

You just listened to the President of the United States. Did he answer all of your questions about what the government should be doing? Or did he leave anything out that you think is important?

DR. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER, PROFESSOR, VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER: John, I thought this was a solid news conference. All the messages are the messages I've been trying to get out. It's very, very important that everyone be vaccinated. There are two reasons for that. The first is delta is here right now. It's spreading among the unvaccinated.

So we need to get our unvaccinated friends and neighbors in to get vaccinated. We need all of us who are eligible for boosters to get boosted. I, my family and I have had ours. And if you have children in your family, age five and older, please bring them in to get vaccinated, that will protect you now.

And as Tony Fauci said, they anticipate that our current vaccines will at least be partially effective, very effective, kind of effective, but nonetheless partially effective against Omicron. So don't wait for a new vaccine to be developed in 2020 to get vaccinated now.

KING: Let me let me jump in on that point. I just want to put up as I do, just as the map of transmission in the United States right now. If you're red, that means you have high community transmission, the southern part of the country where it's warmer, is benefiting both right now you can bring up to your point about vaccines.

There are still 10 states you live in one of them, sir, where less than half of the population has been fully vaccinated. When will we know? Dr. Fauci says he believes the current vaccines at least will protect you against serious disease from this new variant? When will we know for sure? How long does that scientific testing process take?

DR. SCHAFFNER: Well, first of all, the scientists are working on this at the NIH around the world in the companies themselves. So we will get progressive information over the next two or three weeks. So let's all hold on. But in the meantime, let's get vaccinated. We should not wait for new information to get vaccinated right now.

KING: And Dr. Schaffner, the president also talks about later in the week, you know, a strategy for dealing with this winter, he was making the case and the numbers certainly support him. This Christmas is a lot better than last Christmas. Vaccines are widely available. People were back with their families for Thanksgiving.

However, yet again, you have the talk of a new variant, you have rattled economy, not your wheelhouse, but you have some financial markets rattled as well. When you look now at the White House that was planning sort of a Delta variant winter strategy now has to deal with an OMICRON variant addition to that.

You see on the map here, it's been identified in 15 countries so far. The travel restrictions are down here about countries in Southern Africa. What else should the administration be doing to get the necessary data? How quickly can you get the data? And is it wise for the president to say, you know, A, they've had a case or two in Canada, but we're not going to do travel restrictions there. We don't think it is severe enough yet. Where's the line? DR. SCHAFFNER: Well, let's hold on for a second, take a deep breath. These are travel restrictions, not bans. Restrictions are very porous. They don't work very well we just have to acknowledge against highly contagious respiratory viruses, those viruses will find a way into our country.

If they are not already there we just haven't detected them. So travel restrictions, I hope can be lifted fairly soon. Now, what are the other things we can do? Dust off that mask, put it back on when you're in public spaces, do the social distancing.

And I think we'll hear a much bigger emphasis on testing. We haven't done nearly as much of that here in the United States, as they have done in Europe. We need to make testing much more widely available that can add an additional way we can get ahead of this virus.

KING: One last quick question on when will we know? You said we will take a couple of weeks to a few weeks to have a better sense of whether existing vaccines are effective against OMICRON?


A lot of the doctors in South Africa say based on what they have seen so far, and they add the so far part, they have not seen serious cases they see it's mostly what they have seen is in students, mostly mild infection. Again, when will we know how long for example, did it take to understand how nasty Delta was?

DR. SCHAFFNER: Well, I hope actually, some of that information will come during this week. And I hope what we hear early my fingers across that this is not a virus that's going to cause more severe disease. And I hope that the breakthrough infections still are modest, but those are my hopes. Let's wait for the data. I think with all the attention in the laboratories, it will come in pretty soon.

KING: Dr. Schaffner grateful SIR for your expertise always but especially on this important day. I appreciate it very much.

DR. SCHAFFNER: Thanks very much John.

KING: Up next for us, COVID politics. Yes COVID politics that Republicans again flunked their science test. Congressman Rodney Jackson, a former White House doctor says this new Coronavirus variant; he says it's a hoax made up by Democrats.