It is possible that omicron, a new coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa, could already be in the United States, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
While there are no confirmed cases of the new variant in the States, Fauci said he "would not be surprised" if omicron already made its way to the U.S.
"We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you're already having travel-related cases that they've been noted in Israel and Belgium and in other places — when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over,” Fauci told "Weekend TODAY" on Saturday.
The new variant is concerning because it "has a large number of mutations" that potentially makes this virus more contagious than other variants, according to Fauci.
"We don't know that yet, but we're going to assume that's the case," he said, adding that the large number of mutations also suggested the new variant "could evade the protection" of coronavirus treatments such as monoclonal antibodies and convalescent plasma as well as the Covid-19 vaccines.
"These are all maybes, but the suggestion is enough," Fauci said. "This is something we got to pay really close attention to and be prepared for something that's serious. It may not turn out that way, but you really want to be ahead of it."
Two cases of the variant have been identified in the U.K., Health Secretary Sajid Javid said Saturday. He added that the people involved were linked to each other and to travel to southern Africa, where omicron was first detected earlier this week.
As public health experts try to find concrete answers to questions about whether the omicron variant causes more severe illness and if it can evade protection from vaccines and treatments, President Joe Biden announced new travel restrictions Friday.
Restrictions for travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi are set to begin Monday.
Travel restrictions are only helpful in giving the U.S. more time to better assess the situation and respond accordingly; it won't stop the spread of the new variant, Fauci said.
Fauci, who also serves as Biden's chief medical adviser, doubled down on how it is "absolutely essential that unvaccinated people get vaccinated and that vaccinated people get boosters" and wear masks during indoor congregations.