Biden announces free rapid tests to curb Omicron

Americans will no longer have to pay for at-home Covid-19 tests under plans Joe Biden announced on Thursday to slow the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant, a day after the first case was confirmed in the US.

In a speech at the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Maryland, the president outlined a range of measures aimed at keeping infections down over the winter, including free rapid tests, an extended mask mandate on public transport and tighter testing requirements for international travellers.

“This new variant is cause for concern, but not panic. We knew there would be cases . . . but we have the best tools, the best vaccines in the world, the best medicine and the best scientists in the world,” Biden said. “We’re going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion.”

The president has shied away from imposing some of the stricter measures used in other countries, such as mandating testing or quarantine requirements for travellers after they arrive in the US.

Officials said in a statement: “Today’s actions will ensure we are using these tools as effectively as possible to protect the American people against this variant and to continue to battle the Delta variant during the winter months when viruses tend to thrive.”

Biden insisted the US was in a “better position” to slow the spread of the new variant than it was a year ago: “Since day one of my administration, we have been doing everything we can to beat this virus, and that is what we have to keep doing.”

The US has confirmed two cases of the heavily mutated Omicron variant, though officials said they expected more to emerge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Wednesday that the variant was discovered in an individual who returned from South Africa on November 22, two days before Omicron was first reported to the World Health Organization.

Scientists said the number of mutations in the new strain made it likely that vaccines would be less effective against it. Stéphane Bancel, chief executive of vaccine maker Moderna, told the Financial Times this week that he expected a “material drop” in the effectiveness of existing inoculations against Omicron.

Countries have rushed to impose stricter rules in an effort to block the new variant. The UK has announced that masks will be compulsory in indoor public spaces, while Israel has said it will close it borders to international arrivals for two weeks.

The Biden administration’s new public health policies include allowing those covered by private health insurance to reclaim the cost of rapid at-home antigen tests from their insurer. The administration will also send tests to be handed out at clinics and health centres for those not privately insured.

From early next week, every traveller will have to test negative within 24 hours of boarding a flight to the US, and will have to wear a mask on board — a requirement that is being extended at least until March.

But unlike many nations, the US is not requiring international arrivals to test or quarantine after landing in the country. Nor is it following the UK’s example of demanding that people take polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests rather than antigen tests, which have a higher likelihood of missing the Omicron strain.

Post-arrival measures can be difficult to implement in the US as they are imposed by state governors rather than the federal government. Many Republican governors, in particular, have resisted imposing Covid restrictions in recent months.

A senior official said: “If additional measures can be implemented well and are effective, we won’t hesitate to take them. But we’re not taking them today.”

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