Not Yet Clear If Omicron More Transmissible, Causes Severe Disease: WHO

United Nations/Geneva- The World Health Organization has said it is not yet clear whether the newly-detected coronavirus variant Omicron is more transmissible or causes more severe disease compared to other variants, including the highly-transmissible and globally prevalent Delta variant.

There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants, the WHO said,

It added that initial reported infections were among university studies -- younger individuals who tend to have more mild disease -- but understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant will take days to several weeks.

Amid concerns over the detection and transmissibility of B.1.1.529, designated by the WHO as a variant of concern , the global health organisation said on Sunday that even as researchers in South Africa and around the world are conducting studies to better understand many aspects of Omicron and will continue to share the findings of these studies as they become available, it is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible (e.g. more easily spread from person to person) compared to other variants, including Delta .

It said the number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant, but epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors.

On the severity of disease caused by the variant, the WHO said, "It is not yet clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, including Delta.

It noted that preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalisation in South Africa but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron .

The WHO said all variants of COVID-19, including the Delta variant that is dominant worldwide, can cause severe disease or death, in particular for the most vulnerable people and thus prevention is always the key.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the Omicron variant reflects the threat of prolonged vaccine injustice.

The longer we take to deliver #VaccinEquity, the more we allow the #COVID19 virus to circulate, mutate and become potentially more dangerous.

He said the WHO is working with scientists around the world to better understand key aspects of the Omicron variant and its impact on the key tools.

The global health agency also stressed that it is vitally important that inequities in access to COVID-19 vaccines are urgently addressed to ensure that vulnerable groups everywhere, including health workers and older persons, receive their first and second doses, alongside equitable access to treatment and diagnostics.

On November 26, the WHO had designated B.1.1.529, first detected in Southern Africa, as a variant of concern , on the advice of WHO's Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE), and named it Omicron.

This decision was based on the evidence presented to the TAG-VE that Omicron has several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves, for example, on how easily it spreads or the severity of illness it causes, it said.

Further, preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron (i.e., people who have previously had COVID-19 could become reinfected more easily with Omicron), as compared to other variants of concern, but information is limited", the WHO said.

It said it is also working with technical partners to understand the potential impact of this variant on existing countermeasures, including vaccines.

Vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease and death, including against the dominant circulating virus, Delta. Current vaccines remain effective against severe disease and death.

The WHO also noted that the widely used PCR tests continue to detect infection, including infection with Omicron, as seen with other variants as well. Studies are ongoing to determine whether there is any impact on other types of tests, including rapid antigen detection tests, it added.

On effectiveness of current treatments on Omicron, the WHO said corticosteroids and receptor blockers will still be effective for managing patients with severe COVID-19. Other treatments will be assessed to see if they are still as effective given the changes to parts of the virus in the Omicron variant.

Currently, the WHO is coordinating with a large number of researchers around the world to better understand Omicron and studies currently underway or underway shortly include assessments of transmissibility, severity of infection (including symptoms), performance of vaccines and diagnostic tests and effectiveness of treatments.

WHO encourages countries to contribute the collection and sharing of hospitalised patient data through the WHO COVID-19 Clinical Data Platform to rapidly describe clinical characteristics and patient outcomes, the global health organisation said.

As governments rush to impose travel restrictions from countries where Omicron is prevalent, the WHO urged them to continue to implement effective public health measures to reduce COVID-19 circulation overall using a risk analysis and science-based approach .

WHO Criticises Travel Bans On Southern African Countries

The World Health Organisation on Sunday urged countries around the world not to impose flight bans on southern African nations due to concerns over the new omicron variant.

WHO's regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, called on countries to follow science and international health regulations in order to avoid using travel restrictions.

Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods, Moeti said in a statement.

If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based, according to the International Health Regulations, which is a legally binding instrument of international law recognized by over 190 nations.

Moeti praised South Africa for following international health regulations and informing WHO as soon as its national laboratory identified the omicron variant.

The speed and transparency of the South African and Botswana governments in informing the world of the new variant is to be commended," said Moeti. "WHO stands with African countries which had the courage to boldly share life-saving public health information, helping protect the world against the spread of COVID-19.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called the restrictions completely unjustified."

The prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant, said in a speech Sunday evening. "The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries, and undermine the ability to respond to, and also to recover from, the pandemic.

Cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus popped up in countries on opposite sides of the world Sunday and many governments rushed to close their borders even as scientists cautioned that it's not clear if the new variant is more alarming than other versions of the virus.

While investigations continue into the omicron variant, WHO recommends that all countries take a risk-based and scientific approach and put in place measures which can limit its possible spread.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, emphasized that there is no data yet that suggests the new variant causes more serious illness than previous COVID-19 variants.

I do think it's more contagious, when you look at how rapidly it spread through multiple districts in South Africa, Collins said on CNN's State of the Union.

Israel decided to bar entry to foreigners, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday among the most drastic of a growing raft of travel curbs being imposed as nations scrambled to slow the variant's spread. Scientists in several places from Hong Kong to Europe have confirmed its presence. The Netherlands reported 13 omicron cases on Sunday, and Australia found two.

The US plans to ban travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries starting Monday.

With the omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity," said Moeti. COVID-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions.

WHO said it scaling up its support for genomic sequencing in Africa so sequencing laboratories have access to adequate human resources and testing reagents to work at full capacity. WHO also said is ready to offer additional help, reinforcing COVID-19 responses including surveillance, treatment, infection prevention and community engagement in southern African countries, it said. ( with AP inputs )

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