Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, pushed back against a claim made by Vice President Kamala Harris during an interview several days ago.
Harris told the Los Angeles Times that the Biden administration did not anticipate the rise in COVID-19 variants, such as Delta or Omicron.
“We didn’t see Delta coming. I think most scientists did not—upon whose advice and direction we have relied—didn’t see Delta coming,” Harris told the Los Angeles Times last week. “We didn’t see Omicron coming. And that’s the nature of what this, this awful virus has been, which as it turns out, has mutations and variants.”
The vice president then conceded that the federal government has “not been victorious over it,” adding: “I don’t think that in any regard anyone can claim victory when, you know, there are 800,000 people who are dead because of this virus.”
Several days later during a CNN interview on Sunday, Fauci responded to Harris’s comments and said that “we definitely saw variants coming,” and “what was not anticipated was the extent of the mutations and the amino acid substitutions in omicron, which was really unprecedented.”
“When you have so much replication going on in the community, to give a virus enough opportunity to replicate, you know it’s going to ultimately mutate, and sometimes those mutations wind up a new variant,” Fauci said, adding that the government will make more investments in providing testing for COVID-19. “That’s what happened with Delta, certainly that’s what happened with Omicron.”
President Joe Biden said earlier this month the government would require private health insurers to reimburse their 150 million customers for the cost of over-the-counter, at-home COVID-19 tests and make 50 million tests available free through rural clinics and health centers for the uninsured.
Omicron, meanwhile, is spreading rapidly in countries with high levels of population immunity, but it is unclear if this is due to the virus’ ability to evade immunity, its inherent increased transmissibility, or a combination of both, the World Health Organization (WHO) said in an update.
It’s also not clear whether the variant can cause more severe symptoms. Authorities in South Africa and now the New York City health commissioner have said that hospitalizations caused by Omicron appear to be lower than previous COVID-19 waves.
“There are still limited data on the clinical severity of Omicron,” WHO said in its most recent update. “More data are needed to understand the severity profile and how severity is impacted by vaccination and pre-existing immunity.”
Reuters contributed to this report.