The World Health Organization, in its latest epidemiological update, said there was early evidence that the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus might be spreading faster than the highly transmissible Delta variant. But it was, however, too early to say if it was as deadly.
According to the international health body, the new variant has now been reported in 57 countries with that number expected to grow. At the same time, the WHO also said only more data in the coming weeks could determine the impact it would have on the Covid-19 pandemic. Besides, crucial questions about the variant still remained unanswered.
The comments come amid concerns over the new variant that first emerged in southern Africa last month, prompting some countries to re-introduce travel bans and restrictions. Globally, the virus has reportedly infected at least 267 million people and killed more than 5.2 million.
Here are the major concerns highlighted by the WHO in its weekly update on the Covid-19 pandemic:
The WHO said certain features of Omicron, such as global spread and large number of mutations, could have a “major impact” on the pandemic. According to Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, Omicron was detected when Delta transmission was “very low” due to which it had little competition.
“Exactly what that impact will be is still difficult to know. We are now starting to see a consistent picture of rapid increase in transmission, although for now the exact rate of increase relative to other variants remains difficult to quantify,” said Dr Ghebreyesus.
Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO’s chief of emergencies, said data about the Omicron variant, so far, is pointing to a virus that was efficiently transmitting and probably more efficiently transmitting than even the Delta variant, which is by far the most widespread and deadly version.
Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead for Covid-19 at the UN health agency, said it was too early to determine the severity of disease caused by Omicron, saying there was only anecdotal information about that for now. “We certainly have information from South Africa that many of the patients that are identified with Omicron have a more mild course of disease,” she said, adding, “but it does take time for people to go through the full course of their infection.”
IMPACT OF VACCINES AND RE-INFECTION
Sticking to their stance that booster shots should be a secondary priority, WHO officials said it was more important to administer first doses to people in places that had relatively little vaccination coverage. Dr Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist, said wholesale boosting was not the solution right now.
In an allusion to policies in hard-hit Europe and the US, she said, “The data from country after country after country is showing that the people who are in the ICUs, the people who are severely ill, and the people who are dying are the unvaccinated. I think the message is loud and clear that it’s a primary course of vaccination that is going to protect against severe disease and death — that has to be our goal.”
The WHO said there was a need for more data to assess whether the mutations present on the Omicron variant might result in reduced protection from vaccine-derived immunity and data on vaccine effectiveness, including the use of additional vaccination doses.
The Omicron variant can partially evade the protection from two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine produced by Pfizer Inc and BioNTech, the research head of a laboratory at the Africa Health Research Institute in South Africa said on Tuesday, reporting the results of a small study.
On the risk of reinfection, the WHO said: “Preliminary analysis suggests that the mutations present in the Omicron variant may reduce neutralising activity of antibodies resulting in reduced protection from natural immunity.”
(With inputs from AP and Reuters)