Covid: Omicron probably in most countries, WHO sayson December 14, 2021 at 7:38 pm

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The heavily mutated coronavirus variant is spreading at an unprecedented rate, the WHO’s head warns.

A health worker fills up a syringe with a Covid vaccine dose in Johannesburg on December 8, 2021.

Image source, AFP

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the new coronavirus variant Omicron is probably already present in most countries around the world.

Cases of the heavily mutated variant have been confirmed in 77 countries.

But WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was probably in many others that had yet to detect it, and was spreading at an unprecedented rate.

Dr Tedros said he was concerned that Omicron was being underestimated.

“Surely, we have learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril. Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems,” he said.

The Omicron variant was first identified in South Africa in November, and the country has since seen a surge in infections. President Cyril Ramaphosa has tested positive for Covid-19, and is currently isolating with mild symptoms.

A number of countries have introduced travel bans affecting South Africa and its neighbours following the emergence of Omicron, but this has failed to stop it from spreading around the world.

Dr Tedros told reporters that Omicron was “spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant”.

The UK government announced on Tuesday that all 11 countries on its travel red list would be taken off, with Health Secretary Sajid Javid saying the variant had spread so widely the rules no longer had much purpose.

The UK is among several European countries to have tightened coronavirus measures amid concerns over the variant.

The Netherlands announced on Tuesday that primary schools would close a week before the Christmas holidays were due to start, while Norway said there would be a ban on serving alcohol in bars and restaurants, among other measures.

In the press conference on Tuesday, Dr Tedros also reiterated concerns about vaccine inequity, as some countries accelerate rollouts of a booster shot in response to Omicron.

Recent studies of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine showed it produced far fewer neutralising antibodies against Omicron than against the original strain, but that this deficit could be reversed by a third, booster, jab.

Dr Tedros said boosters “could play an important role” in curbing the spread of Covid-19, but that it was “a question of prioritisation”.

“The order matters. Giving boosters to groups at low risk of severe disease or death simply endangers the lives of those at high risk who are still waiting for their primary doses because of supply constraints,” he said.

Supplies to the global vaccine-sharing programme Covax have increased in recent months. But world health officials fear a repeat of a shortfall of tens of millions of doses which occurred in the middle of this year, partly as a result of India suspending exports during a surge in cases there.

In poorer countries, some vulnerable people are yet to receive a single dose.

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