The United States is prepared to address any potential threat to the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments posed by the new omicron coronavirus variant, according to the White House and federal health officials. 

Omicron is spreading quickly worldwide and is expected to land in the United States. There is not enough known about the variant yet to tell whether it will impact the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines and medications. But given its unusual number and type of mutations, scientists are questioning how effective the currently available COVID-19 vaccines will remain against it.

In a Monday speech, President Biden struck a reassuring note, explaining that his top medical advisers expect that the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines “provide at least some protection against the new variant and the boosters strengthen that protection significantly.” 

“We do not yet believe that additional measures will be needed,” he said. “But so that we are prepared if needed, my team is already working with officials at [the three vaccine makers] to develop contingency plans for vaccines or boosters if needed.”

The Food and Drug Administration followed up on Tuesday, releasing a statement saying  that it is quickly assessing the impact of the variant on the currently available diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.

As a condition of emergency use authorization, companies that make these drugs and tests are required to “actively monitor for and evaluate the impact of variants on their products,” FDA said. It expects that more detailed data regarding if and how well the current vaccines work against omicron will be available within a few weeks. 

“If a modification to the current vaccines is needed, the FDA and companies will work together to develop and test such a modification quickly,” it added. 

Vaccine makers, meanwhile, are claiming that they will quickly pivot if necessary. Moderna’s CEO acknowledged that there may be a drop in vaccine effectiveness, while BioNTech’s chief predicted that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will provide strong protection against severe disease. In any case, both companies have said that they may be able to turn around variant-specific versions of their vaccines within months.

COVID-19 testing not likely to be affected

Although the effect of omicron on vaccine performance is uncertain, it looks as though testing — a cornerstone of the U.S. COVID-19 mitigation strategy — will remain fully functional, FDA added. 

The agency has conducted a preliminary review showing a low likelihood that the omicron variant will interfere with the accuracy of the high-volume polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests and antigen (rapid) tests widely used in the United States, it said.