WHO warns Omicron variant poses ‘very high' risk of infection worldwide

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Coronavirus, omicron variant, vaccines, world health organization

Passengers wearing protective gear arrive at Incheon International Airport, in Incheon, South Korea, 29 November 2021, as health authorities have imposed an entry ban on foreign arrivals from eight African countries. EPA

The new Omicron variant poses a “very high” risk of infection that could have “severe consequences” globally, the World Health Organization warned Monday.

The COVID-19 strain first detected in southern Africa is a “highly divergent variant with a high number of mutations… some of which are concerning and may be associated with immune escape potential and higher transmissibility,” the UN agency said.

“The overall global risk related to the new variant … is assessed as very high,” it said, adding that Omicron “has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic.”

The WHO – which dubbed Omicron a “variant of concern” — urged its 194 member states to accelerate vaccination of high-priority groups and to “ensure mitigation plans are in place” to maintain essential health services in anticipation of increased numbers of the illness.

So far, no deaths linked to the new variant had been reported and the South African doctor who first sounded the alarm on the Omicron variant of the coronavirus said that its symptoms are “unusual but mild” in healthy patients.

Coronavirus, omicron variant, vaccines, world health organization

A traveler passes a flight information notice board at Cape Town International Airport as restrictions on international flights take effect.

EPA

However, scientists stress further research is needed to assess the strain’s potential to escape protection offered by vaccines and previous infections, the agency said.

“Increasing cases, regardless of a change in severity, may pose overwhelming demands on health care systems and may lead to increased morbidity and mortality,” the WHO said.

“The presence of multiple mutations of the spike protein in the receptor-binding domain suggests that Omicron may have a high likelihood of immune escape from antibody-mediated protection. However, immune escape potential from cell-mediated immunity is more difficult to predict,” it added.

Coronavirus, omicron variant, vaccines, world health organization

Travelers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) wait for their turn at a flight ticket counter at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia.

EPA

But despite the troubling assessment, the agency cautioned against imposing travel bans, amid worries that banning travel from countries where new variants are first detected could be unfair and dissuade surveillance.

“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” WHO Regional Director Matshidiso Moeti said, Agence France-Presse reported.

A growing number of countries have already imposed travel restrictions on southern Africa, including the US, since the variant was first reported to WHO on Nov. 24 from South Africa.

Coronavirus, omicron variant, vaccines, world health organization

Healthcare workers administering COVID-19 tests at a drive through test centre in Sydney, New South Wales (NSW), Australia.

EPA

Coronavirus, omicron variant, vaccines, world health organization

The World Health Organization issued the risk on Monday morning.

AP

Omicron has since spread rapidly around the world.

On Monday, six cases were confirmed in the Glasgow and Lanarkshire areas of Scotland, according to CNN. Prior to Sunday, the UK had reported three cases, all in England.

In Australia, there are five confirmed cases — four in the state of New South Wales and one case in the Northern Territory, the network reported.

In Portugal, 13 players for the Lisbon-based SAD Belenenses soccer team have tested positive, health authorities said Monday, according to CNN. The infections account for all of Portugal’s Omicron cases identified so far.

Coronavirus, omicron variant, vaccines, world health organization

A traveler wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) arrives at Sydney International Airport in Sydney, New South Wales (NSW), Australia.

EPA

In Hong Kong, the third case of the variant was found to be a 37-year-old man who traveled from Nigeria, health officials said during a news briefing Monday.

He had received two doses of the Moderna vaccine, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said, adding that “our existing system is robust and also able to stop any transmission.”

The variant also has been recorded in Germany, Italy, Denmark, Belgium, Botswana, Israel and the Netherlands.

Coronavirus, omicron variant, vaccines, world health organization

Passengers wait to get a COVID-19 test at Heathrow Airport in London, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021.

AP

A bit of good news also emerged Monday, as a top South African infectious disease expert said Monday that existing vaccines are probably effective at preventing severe disease and hospitalization from Omicron.

“Based on what we know and how the other variants of concern have reacted to vaccine immunity, we can expect that we will still see high effectiveness for hospitalization and severe disease, and that that protection of the vaccines is likely to remain strong,” Abdool Karim told a news conference.

With Post wires

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