Dismissing as “preposterous” a Republican senator’s claim he is “overhyping” Covid-19 as he did HIV and Aids, Dr Anthony Fauci said on Sunday the threat to the US from the Omicron variant remained to be determined – but that signs from South Africa, where the variant emerged, were encouraging.
“Clearly in South Africa Omicron has a transmission advantage,” Fauci told CNN’s State of the Union, “because … they were very much at a low level then they had almost a vertical spike upwards, which is almost exclusively Omicron.
“Thus far – though it’s too early to really make any definitive statements about it – it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it.
“But we have really got to be careful before we make any determinations that [Omicron] is less severe or it really doesn’t cause any severe illness comparable to Delta. But, thus far, the signals are a bit encouraging regarding the severity. But, again, you got to hold judgment until we get more experience.”
Fauci’s evident caution stood at odds with the bizarre and cavalier accusation made by the Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson.
Speaking to the Fox News host Brian Kilmeade this week, the Republican said: “Fauci did the exact same thing with Aids. He overhyped it. He created all kinds of fear, saying it could affect the entire population, when it couldn’t. And … he’s using the exact same playbook for Covid.”
Fauci, 80, has been head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or Niaid, since 1984, serving seven presidents. His work on Aids and HIV earned him the presidential medal of freedom from George W Bush.
In an interview with the Guardian last year, Fauci said: “My career and my identity has really been defined by HIV. Because I’ve been in a very unique position of now being one of the very, very few people who were there from the very first day.”
H Clifford Lane, a longtime Fauci deputy, said: “There are so many ways in which the experience of going through HIV/Aids has helped prepare him for what he’s dealing with now. Brand-new disease, no treatment, no cure.”
But Johnson’s attack followed volleys of abuse from Republicans and rightwingers who in one case went so far as to compare Fauci to Josef Mengele, the Nazi “Angel of Death”.
Asked about Johnson, Fauci said: “How do you respond to something as preposterous as that? Overhyping Aids? It’s killed over 750,000 Americans and 36 million people worldwide. How do you overhype that?
“Overhyping Covid? It’s already killed 780,000 Americans and over 5 million people worldwide. So, I don’t have any clue of what he’s talking about.”
Omicron has been detected in 15 US states. Fauci was cautiously optimistic that current vaccines might work against it.
“The vaccines that we are distributing now in the United States and throughout the world are directed against the original ancestral Wuhan strain,” he said. “And yet … we’re getting quite good protection against Delta [variant] when you’re vaccinated, and particularly when you get boostered.
“And that’s the reason why we’re saying, even with a new variant like Omicron, if you get boosted, you’re going to get your level up way up, and we feel certain that there will be a some degree, and maybe a considerable degree, of protection against the Omicron variant, if, in fact, it starts to take hold in a dominant way in this country.”
Fauci and other Biden advisers repeated indications that the travel ban imposed on South Africa and other African countries might soon be lifted. They also sought to reassure a public on edge about what Omicron might mean for Christmas holidays, amid rising Covid case numbers.
The surgeon general, Dr Vivek Murthy, told CBS’s Face the Nation: “The concern and the challenge we have right now in the country is that we have millions of people who are still unvaccinated, which poses a risk to their lives but also poses an increased risk of transmission.
“But if you do as many families do, you get vaccinated and boosted, you use testing judiciously before you gather, you gather in well-ventilated spaces and use masks whenever you can in public indoor spaces, your risk can be quite low and your holidays can be quite fulfilling. That’s what so many families experienced this past Thanksgiving.”
On NBC’s Meet the Press, Fauci’s boss, National Institutes of Health director Dr Francis Collins, said more variants were possible after Omicron. He also said the best thing Americans could do would be to stop being “a little sloppy” on precautions such as vaccinations, boosters and mask-wearing, particularly during holiday travel.
On ABC’s This Week, Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the Food and Drug Administration was “already in conversations about streamlining the authorisation of an Omicron-specific vaccine, partially because much of the vaccine is actually exactly the same, and really it would just be that mRNA code that would have to change.
“So those conversations are ongoing, and certainly, FDA will move swiftly and CDC will move swiftly right thereafter.”