As news of a brand-new and very contagious variant of COVID-19 spread across the world on Friday — prompting the Dow to drop more than 900 points — President Biden was nowhere to be found.
The president was lounging at a billionaire’s $20 million mansion on tony Nantucket.
In the vacuum, the White House put out the word that Mr. Biden had been informed about the new variant. At the same time, Dr. Anthony Fauci, an immunologist and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who serves as Mr. Biden’s chief medical adviser on COVID-19, announced there would be no travel ban on the countries most affected by the new strain.
But then Mr. Biden took a break from chilling to talk to the press (after, of course, the Dow had already plunged).
“Mr. President, what’s your message to Americans on the new variant?” one reporter asked midday Friday. “Are you concerned about the variant, sir?”
Mr. Biden said, “You’ve already gotten my release.”
Reporters pressed, and Mr. Biden added: “I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious — make sure there is no travel to and from South Africa and six other countries in that region and — except for American citizens who are able to come back.”
“What about the markets dropping, sir? The markets have dropped significantly today. What’s your response to that?” said another reporter.
“They always do when there’s something — when COVID arises,” Mr. Biden said.
“But does it worry you at all?”
“Not at all.”
“Because why would it?”
Mr. Biden’s bravado was all too little too late.
During Mr. Biden’s silence, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat who took over after Andrew Cuomo resigned in disgrace, declared a state of emergency. While the omicron variant has not yet been detected in the U.S., Hochul said Friday that “it’s coming.”
Although the markets stabilized a bit on Monday, the Dow had dropped another 600 points by midday Tuesday. By then, New York City had reinstituted COVID-19 mask advisory “at all times” indoors regardless of vaccination status.
“There are no omicron cases here in New York City at this moment. It is very likely there will be, but there are no cases at this moment,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “Our entire focus once again is going to be on vaccination. Based on everything we know, vaccination is crucial to any strategy for addressing Omicron.”
No one was impressed with what Mr. Biden had to say when he finally did deliver a formal speech on the variant on Monday.
“Today, there are three messages about the new variant that I want the American people to hear,” Mr. Biden said at the White House. “First, this variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”
Too late for that. Mask mandates and states of emergency had already been declared.
“Second, the best protection – I know you’re tired of hearing me say this — the best protection against this new variant or any of the – of the variants out there – the ones we’ve been dealing with already — is getting fully vaccinated and getting a booster shot,” Mr. Biden said.
But already, some top people, including the CEO of Moderna, which produced an effective vaccine against the first strain of COVID-19, are warning that the new variant may well bypass existing vaccines.
Stéphane Bancel predicted that there will be a “material drop” in the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines now in use when put up against the omicron variant.
“There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level … we had with Delta,” Mr. Bancel told the Financial Times on Monday. “I think it’s going to be a material drop. I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to … are like, ‘This is not going to be good,’” he added.
Mr. Bancel “fears that the antibodies Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine provides to fight against the virus could be eight times lower against the new strain,” The Daily Mail reported on Monday.
Mr. Biden went on. “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,” he said.
But again, Mr. Bancel warned that it would take Moderna researchers from two to six weeks to learn how effective their vaccine is against omicron. He also said it could take up to 90 days to create a new version of its COVID-19 vaccine to handle the new variant.
Despite all the happy words from Mr. Biden, Dr. Fauci — a real-life Debbie Downer — was telling everyone who would listen that “we need to prepare for the worst.”
And that’s how NOT to handle a crisis.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @josephcurl