WHO/Blink Media/Hannah Reyes
New York: Features of the new COVID-19 variant Omicron, including the extent to which it will spread, and the sheer number of mutations, suggest that it could have a major impact on the course of the pandemic, but it’s still too early to say for sure.
That was one key takeaway from Wednesday’s latest weekly briefing on the virus from WHO Director General, Tedros Ghebreyesus, speaking to journalists in Geneva.
So far, Omicron has been reported in 57 countries, and WHO expects the number to continue growing.
Tedros highlighted “a consistent picture of rapid increase in transmission” but said that the exact rate of increase relative to other variants remains difficult to quantify.
Despite some data from South Africa suggesting increased risk of re-infection with Omicron, more data is needed. The variant might also cause milder disease than Delta, but there is no definitive answer yet.
“New data are emerging every day, but scientists need time to complete studies and interpret the results. We must be careful about drawing firm conclusions until we have a more complete picture”, Tedros explained.
In this context, the WHO chief called on all countries to increase surveillance, testing and sequencing.
“Any complacency now will cost lives”, he warned.
Even though the world still needs answers to some crucial questions, Tedros said people everywhere are not defenceless against Omicron, or Delta.
“The steps countries take today, and in the coming days and weeks will determine how Omicron unfolds. If countries wait until their hospitals start to fill up, it’s too late. Don’t wait. Act now”, he said.
Tedros also asked countries to avoid “ineffective and discriminatory” travel bans.
This week, France and Switzerland have lifted their travel bans on southern African countries, and Tedros urge other countries to follow their lead.
Every day, the UN Agency is convening thousands of experts around the world to share and analyse data and drive research forward.
For example, the Technical Advisory Group for Virus Evolution is assessing Omicron’s effect on transmission, disease severity, vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics.
The Joint Advisory Group on COVID-19 Therapeutics Prioritization is analysing the possible effects of Omicron on treatment of hospitalized patients.
The R&D Blueprint for Epidemics is working with researchers to identify knowledge gaps, and the Technical Advisory Group for COVID-19 Vaccine Composition, is assessing impacts on current vaccines and determining whether changes are needed.
No ‘forced’ vaccines: UN rights chief
Also on Wednesday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said that “in no circumstances should people be forcibly administered a vaccine”.
In a video address to the Human Rights Council, Ms. Bachelet maintained that it was “profoundly fortunate” that medical research had enabled vaccine development to move so swiftly to prevent the most severe forms of the coronavirus.
But the UN Human Rights chief warned that it seemed very unlikely that the target of protecting 40 per cent of the world's population by the end of 2021 will be met. And the target of 70 per cent by mid-2022 also appears unrealistic at this stage, Ms. Bachelet said.