No fatalities linked to new variant but WHO cautious
The World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Monday the new Covid-19 Omicron variant poses a “very high” risk globally, despite uncertainties about its behaviour that will be established only in the next few weeks, as more countries rolled out new curbs to keep the mutation at bay.
The global health body said it was coordinating with a large number of researchers around the world to better understand Omicron, with studies underway, including assessments of transmissibility, severity of infection (including symptoms), performance of vaccines and diagnostic tests, and effectiveness of treatments.
For now, Omicron appears to be a “highly divergent variant with a high number of mutations... the likelihood of potential further spread of Omicron at the global level is high,” the WHO cautioned in a technical note.
To date, no deaths connected with the new variant of concern (VOC) have been reported, it added. But even if “another surge of Covid-19 takes place driven by Omicron, consequences may be severe”, the agency added.
Researchers in South Africa, where the variant was first discovered and where the largest numbers of people confirmed to be infected with it are, said their early assessments show Omicron is more transmissible than its predecessors, but existing vaccines are still likely to offer good protection against severe illness and death.
Salim Karim, a South African clinical infectious disease epidemiologist, said on Monday that there is no need to panic, AP reported. “We know how to assess this and adjust our strategies accordingly,” he said during an online briefing.
South Africa anticipates that it will be detecting more than 10,000 new coronavirus cases by the end of the week, up from fewer than 3,000 on Saturday, with hospital admissions already showing a slight increase.
Nations around the world sought to keep the variant at bay with travel bans and further restrictions.
Japan announced it was restricting the arrivals of all international passengers, and Australia said it will delay its planned reopening of borders to foreign citizens migrating for study and work.
Elsewhere, more regions confirmed they have detected the new VOC: Canada said it detected two cases in people linked to travel with Nigeria, and Scotland said it found two cases of local transmission and 13 people were discovered to have contracted it at a Portuguese soccer club.
Besides South Africa and UK, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy, Czech Republic and Australia have confirmed cases of the variant.
Even as countries consider these steps, experts and scientists said the true nature of the threat will only become clearer over the next couple of weeks. “What we do not know yet is vaccine efficacy – what is the impact of the variant on vaccine protection. This will only become clear in the next one or two weeks,” Stéphane Bancel, the chief executive of Moderna, said in an interview to CNBC on Monday.
“I don’t believe many people would have predicted such a big jump in evolution in one variant,” he said.
Both Moderna and BioNTech, the developers of the two successful mRNA vaccines, said they are exploring Omicron-targeting doses which could be ready within the next three months.
WHO in its note on Monday said countries should enhance their surveillance to try to get a clear overview of where and how fast it is spreading and urged accelerated vaccinations, especially among vulnerable populations who have yet to receive any jabs.
But it has cautioned against imposing travel bans, fearing that blocking travel from countries where new variants are first spotted could be unfair and dissuade surveillance.
The UK government has asked its experts to consider the merits of expanding the booster program to millions more people under the age of 40 and cutting the time period for a third jab.
Anthony Harnden, deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations, told the BBC that it was “really important that we get the immunity levels in the population high” in case the Omicron variant is more transmissible or protection from the vaccines is reduced.
India on Sunday unveiled new guidelines for international travellers, dropping vaccinations as a condition to exempt people from mandatory test-on-arrival if they are travelling from a list of “at risk” countries.
Now, anyone flying in from these regions will need to wait at the airport till test results arrive, and will be taken to isolation facilities if they are found infected, following which samples will be genotyped to see if the pathogen they are carrying is Omicron. Those who test negative will need to quarantine at home for a week and take a test on the eighth day mandatorily.
All European and most southern African countries are on the list of 12 at-risk regions identified by India.