1st case of omicron coronavirus variant detected in U.S.

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A person in California has become the first in the U.S. to have an identified case of the omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to U.S. President Joe Biden, said the person was a traveller who returned from South Africa on Nov. 22 and tested positive on Nov. 29.

“We knew that it was just a matter of time before the first case of omicron would be detected in the United States,” Fauci said.

A news release from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the person was “fully vaccinated” and had “mild symptoms that are improving.” 

Fauci said the person had not had a booster shot. 

Officials said they had contacted everyone who had close contact with the person, and they had all tested negative.

Genomic sequencing was conducted at the University of California, San Francisco and the sequence was confirmed by the CDC.

Travel restrictions, added testing

The news comes as scientists continue to study the risks posed by the new strain of the virus. The Biden administration moved late last week to restrict travel from southern Africa where the variant was first identified. 

Seven cases of the omicron variant have been detected in Canada. The Canadian government has blocked entry for foreign nationals who have been in 10 African countries in the past 14 days. 

Clusters of cases have also been identified in several other nations.

The CDC is taking steps to tighten U.S. testing rules for travellers from overseas, including requiring a test for all travellers within a day of boarding a flight to the U.S. regardless of vaccination status. It was also considering mandating post-arrival testing.

Officials said those measures would only “buy time” for the country to learn more about the new variant and to take appropriate precautions but that given its transmissibility, its arrival in the U.S. was inevitable.

Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious than previous strains, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine.

Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, said more would be known about the omicron strain in two to four weeks as scientists grow and test lab samples of the virus.

The announcement of the first U.S. case comes before Biden plans to outline his strategy on Thursday to combat the virus over the winter. Biden has tried to quell alarm over the omicron variant, saying it was a cause for concern but “not a cause for panic.”

Biden and public health officials have grown more urgent in their pleas for more Americans to get vaccinated — and for those who have been vaccinated to get booster shots to maximize their protection against the virus.

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