A CNN reporter said Joe Biden ‘seemed confused’ in his ABC News interview on Wednesday night, after the president appeared to mix up COVID-19 at-home tests and antiviral pills.
Biden, 79, spoke to ABC’s David Muir for 20 minutes on Wednesday – defending his administration against criticism of its handling of the pandemic and readiness for Omicron, but also admitting that there were certain mistakes made.
Asked about complaints that the lines to get tested for COVID-19 were excessive, with waits of over five hours in New York City, Biden said that 500 million at-home tests had been ordered. But several times he referred to the tests as ‘pills’ – potentially thinking of the Pfizer antiviral pills, which were federally approved on the same day.
‘Repeatedly throughout this interview – President Biden seems confused and was confusing the half a billion tests that they’ve ordered with a half a billion pills,’ said Jeff Zeleny, CNN’s chief national affairs correspondent.
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny – pictured on a panel on Wednesday night alongside Gloria Borger and John Kasich, in a discussion with Wolf Blitzer (left) – said Biden ‘seemed confused’ in his Wednesday night interview
President Joe Biden said in an interview that aired on ABC News Wednesday evening that his administration’s response to the pandemic has not ‘been good enough’
‘Of course, pills were in the news today with the Pfizer approval of the anti-viral, so he corrected himself, but that was one thing that stuck out to me.’
Zeleny, appearing on Wolf Blitzer’s show on Wednesday afternoon, accused Biden of ‘really not accepting any responsibility’ for the lack of testing.
Biden, asked whether the administration should not have seen Omicron coming and prepared accordingly, said ‘nobody saw it coming’.
Defiant, the president said they were doing the best they could.
Zeleny said it was not enough.
‘Simply, this administration, and the president leading the charge here, really not accepting any responsibility at all for this lack of testing,’ Zeleny said.
‘We’ve seen these images across the country, long lines, just the inability to get tests.
‘And yes, Omicron came on very quickly here, but it has been almost a month since Thanksgiving where they knew this was coming.
‘So he said he wishes he could have acted faster, and then explains why he didn’t.’
Zeleny also pointed out that he has not received detailed information regarding the delivery of the 500 million tests that Biden promised.
‘But the question also is: The at-home tests for January – there is no sense from the administration that they will be sent out in early January, as the president suggested in this interview,’ Zeleny concluded.
In the interview on Wednesday, Biden was asked how the administration had failed to see Omicron coming, and laughed.
Lines of people wait for their COVID tests in Queens, New York City, on Thursday
Biden sat down with ABC’s David Muir at the White House in an interview that aired three days before Christmas to discuss a range of issues – including the lack of testing kits around the country as COVID surges and American travel for the holidays
Massive lines have formed around the country for Americans to receive free at-home rapid COVID testing kits ahead of the holidays. Pictured: City residents wait in line in Philadelphia for their kits on Monday
People line up to await the opening of a CityMD health clinic as the Omicron coronavirus variant continues to spread in Manhattan, New York City on Saturday
A huge line forms at the Barclays Center Saturday as demand for COVID testing soars in New York City
‘How did we get it wrong?’ the president responded. ‘Nobody saw it coming. Nobody in the whole world. Who saw it coming?’
Host David Muir replied: ‘Did the administration not expect that there could be moments like this one where you’d have a highly transmissible variant around the corner?’
Biden said: ‘It was possible, and it’s possible there could be other variants that come along.
‘But what do you plan for? You plan for what you think is available.
‘That is the most likely threat that exists at the time and you respond to it. And I think that that’s exactly what we’ve done.
‘And that’s – for example, Omicron is spreading rapidly, but the death rates are much, much lower than they were.
‘This is not March of 2020. This is a very different time that we’re in now.’
Omicron first emerged in Botswana, and then spread quickly through South Africa before being found in Europe – particularly the U.K. and the Netherlands.
The new variant – the latest to be considered by the World Health Organization an official variant of concern – is scything its way through the United States, and is on track to overtake Delta.
Omicron has 30 mutations, and appears to be significantly more transmissible than Delta – which was already remarkably virulent. What is not known yet is whether Omicron is more deadly.
‘Omicron only really came on the scene just before Thanksgiving. We weren’t talking about Omicron six months ago,’ said Biden.
‘But it’s just recent.
‘And so we are chasing Omicron.
‘But the fact of the matter is, you’re chasing whatever comes on the scene that hadn’t, wasn’t there before, and this wasn’t there this last summer for example.’
Muir pressed Biden on whether the administration had failed the American people.
‘We’re nearly two years into this pandemic, you’re a year into the presidency. Empty shelves and no test kits in some places – three days before Christmas when it’s so important. Is that good enough?’ Muir asked the president, in an interview that aired on Wednesday evening.
‘No, nothing’s been good enough,’ Biden replied.
‘But look, look where we are,’ he added of the progress.
‘Last Christmas we were in a situation where we had significantly fewer people vaccinated, emergency rooms were filled, we had serious backups in hospitals that were causing great difficulties.
‘We’re in a situation now where we have 200 million people fully vaccinated. And we have more than that who have had at least one shot – and we’re getting these booster shots, as well.’
Asked if it was a failure of his administration, Biden replied: ‘I don’t think it’s a failure.’
Why is the new Omicron variant so scary?
What is so concerning about the variant?
Experts say it is the ‘worst variant they have ever seen’ and are alarmed by the number of mutations it carries.
The variant — which the World Health Organization has named Omicron — has 32 mutations on the spike protein — the most ever recorded and twice as many as the currently dominant Delta strain.
Experts fear the changes could make the vaccines 40 per cent less effective in a best-case scenario.
This is because so many of the changes on B.1.1.529 are on the virus’s spike protein.
The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognise the version of the spike from older versions of the virus.
The Botswana variant has around 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein. The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognize the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But the mutations may make the spike protein look so different that the body’s immune system struggles to recognize it and fight it off. And three of the spike mutations (H665Y, N679K, P681H) help it enter the body’s cells more easily. Meanwhile, it is missing a membrane protein (NSP6) which was seen in earlier iterations of the virus, which experts think could make it more infectious. And it has two mutations (R203K and G204R) that have been present in all variants of concern so far and have been linked with infectiousness
But because the spike protein looks so different on the new strain, the body’s immune system may struggle to recognise it and fight it off.
It also includes mutations found on the Delta variant that allow it to spread more easily.
Experts warn they won’t know how much more infectious the virus is for at least two weeks and may not know its impact on Covid hospitalizations and deaths for up to six weeks.
What mutations does the variant have?
The Botswana variant has more than 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein.
It carries mutations P681H and N679K which are ‘rarely seen together’ and could make it yet more jab resistant.
These two mutations, along with H655Y, may also make it easier for the virus to sneak into the body’s cells.
And the mutation N501Y may make the strain more transmissible and was previously seen on the Kent ‘Alpha’ variant and Beta among others.
Two other mutations (R203K and G204R) could make the virus more infectious, while a mutation that is missing from this variant (NSP6) could increase its transmissibility.
It also carries mutations K417N and E484A that are similar to those on the South African ‘Beta’ variant that made it better able to dodge vaccines.
But it also has the N440K, found on Delta, and S477N, on the New York variant — which was linked with a surge of cases in the state in March — that has been linked to antibody escape.
Other mutations it has include G446S, T478K, Q493K, G496S, Q498R and Y505H, although their significance is not yet clear.
Is it a variant of concern?
The World Health Organization has classified the virus as a ‘variant of concern’, the label given to the highest-risk strains.
This means WHO experts have concluded its mutations allow it to spread faster, cause more severe illness or hamper the protection from vaccines.
Where did B.1.1.529 first emerge?
The first case was uploaded to international variant database GISAID by Hong Kong on November 23. The person carrying the new variant was traveling to the country from South Africa.
The UK was the first country to identify that the virus could be a threat and alerted other nations.
Experts believe the strain may have originated in Botswana, but continental Africa does not sequence many positive samples, so it may never be known where the variant first emerged.
Professor Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, told MailOnline the virus likely emerged in a lingering infection in an immunocompromised patient, possibly someone with undiagnosed AIDS.
In patients with weakened immune systems infections can linger for months because the body is unable to fight it off. This gives the virus time to acquire mutations that allow it to get around the body’s defenses.
Will I be protected if I have a booster?
Scientists have warned the new strain could make Covid vaccines 40 per cent less effective at preventing infection – however the impact on severe illness is still unknown.
But they said emergence of the mutant variant makes it even more important to get a booster jab the minute people become eligible for one.
The vaccines trigger neutralizing antibodies, which is the best protection available against the new variant. So the more of these antibodies a person has the better, experts said.
Britain’s Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, said: ‘The booster jab was already important before we knew about this variant – but now, it could not be more important.’
When will we know more about the variant?
Data on how transmissible the new variant is and its effect on hospitalizations and deaths is still weeks away.
The UK has offered help to South Africa, where most of the cases are concentrated, to gather this information and believe they will know more about transmissibility in two to three weeks.
But it may be four to six weeks until they know more about hospitalizations and deaths.
What is the variant called?
The strain was scientifically named as B.1.1.529 on November 24, one day after it was spotted in Hong Kong.
The variants given an official name so far include Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma.
Experts at the World Health Organization on November 26 named the variant Omicron.
The president has been confronted with angry scenes as people wait for up to six hours to get tested for COVID-19. Some test sites in New York City have reported having to stop testing for several hours, because they have run out of tests.
Others – such as branches of the City MD clinics – have been forced to close, because they do not have enough staff to keep up with the pace of demand.
Governors across the country appear to have been caught off guard, and are now scrambling to catch up and prevent further chaos.
Biden expressed regret about not ordering the rapid, at-home tests sooner.
‘I wish I had thought about ordering’ 500 million at-home tests ‘two months ago,’ he told Muir.
He defended, however, his upbeat message earlier in the year.
In July, Biden told the country that a corner had been turned in the fight against COVID.
He said he did not regret the comments, and stressed that it was an ongoing fight.
‘How are we going to do this? Are we certainly going to be able to overcome the Delta – excuse me, the virus, COVID-19?
‘The answer is: the expectation is yes, because we have the best scientists in the world.
‘We move so rapidly compared to other countries.
‘But we don’t know, we don’t know for certain, so that’s why.’