The omicron variant of the coronavirus has now spread to 40 countries and 16 of the 50 U.S. states, but top U.S. government health officials said Sunday they are not certain about the severity of its effects on the health of people who contract it. 

“It does not look like there’s a great deal of severity to it,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, told CNN’s “State of the Union” show.  

He said, however, it was important to “hold judgment until we get more experience” with the variant as it spreads from country to country and across geographically widely separated U.S. states. 

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, expressed uncertainty as well, saying on NBC’s “Meet the Press” show, “Does this in fact turn out to be less dangerous” than previous coronavirus variants? “Scientists are all over this, hard at work 24/7 to get these answers.” 

“It’s certainly possible,” Collins said, “that this is not the last emerging variant that will attract a lot of attention and a lot of concern.” 

U.S. President Joe Biden has imposed a ban on flights to the United States from eight southern Africa countries. Starting Monday, people traveling to the United States must have a negative COVID-19 test result no more than a day ahead of their trip, instead of the previous three-day period. 

Some experts in the U.S. have suggested that testing might soon be required on domestic flights in the U.S., but Collins said that would be “extremely onerous,” adding that he did not know how much such a requirement would inhibit the spread of the coronavirus within the country. 

“I think we’ve got it just about right” with imposition of the international travel restrictions, Collins said. Israel, Japan and Morocco have barred the entry of foreign travelers altogether. 

With the rapid advance of the omicron variant in the U.S., the number of first-time vaccinations has increased, reaching a six-month high last Thursday, even as about 60 million people eligible for inoculations remain unvaccinated, refusing shots for a variety of reasons. 

In South Africa, the omicron variant has been spreading twice as fast as the delta variant, which previously had been considered the most contagious. 

The U.S. has recorded more than 784,000 COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic first swept into the country 21 months ago, more than in any other nation across the globe, and 48.9 million coronavirus cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Nearly 200 million people are fully vaccinated in the U.S. and more than 45 million people have received booster shots.   

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