The World Health Organization’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan told Reuters on Friday that while the new coronavirus variant omicron appeared to be very transmissible, the right response was to be prepared, cautious and not panic.
The WHO has urged countries to boost health-care capacity and vaccinate their people to fight a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the omicron variant, saying travel curbs could buy time, but alone were not the answer.
“How worried should we be? We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we’re in a different situation to a year ago,” Swaminathan said during an interview at the Reuters Next conference.
While the emergence of the new variant was unwelcome, she said the world was much better prepared given the development of vaccines since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Much remains unknown about omicron, which was first detected in southern Africa last month and has been spotted in at least two dozen countries. Parts of Europe were already grappling with a wave of infections of the delta variant before it emerged.
“We need to wait, let’s hope it’s milder … but it’s too early to conclude about the variant as a whole,” Swaminathan said of what was known about omicron.
“Delta accounts for 99 per cent of infections around the world. This variant would have to be more transmissible to out-compete and become dominant worldwide. It is possible, but it’s not possible to predict.”
The WHO’s top scientist said the omicron variant seemed to be causing three times more infections than experienced previously in South Africa, meaning “it does seem to be able to overcome some of the natural immunity from previous infection.”
Vaccines did appear to be having some effect.
“The fact that they’re not getting sick … that means the vaccines are still providing protection and we would hope that they would continue to provide protection,” Swaminathan said.
Asked about the need for annual vaccine boosters, she said “the WHO is preparing for all scenarios,” which could include an additional dose, particularly among some age groups or vulnerable sections of the population, or a modified vaccine.
“Natural infection acts as a booster,” the WHO scientist said, adding that while the new variant “could have originated in a country where there isn’t a great deal of genome sequencing,” its origins were not known.
“We may never know,” Swaminathan said.
–From Reuters, last updated at 8:25 a.m. ET
What’s happening across Canada
What’s happening around the world
As of early Friday morning, more than 264.3 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.2 million.
In Africa, the health ministry in South Africa on Thursday reported 11,535 new cases of COVID-19 and 44 additional deaths, up from 8,561 new cases and 28 deaths a day earlier. The country, which raised the alarm about the new variant now named omicron, has seen a surge in cases.
In Europe, coronavirus cases in Slovakia have hit a daily record despite the country entering a national lockdown last week. The country’s health ministry reported that Slovakia confirmed 15,278 new cases on Thursday, almost 5,000 more than the previous record. The government ordered a two-week lockdown that started Nov. 25. However, the ministry attributed the size of the most recent daily increase to some test results not getting from labs to the information system on Tuesday and therefore being added to Thursday’s tally.
Under the lockdown, people are allowed to leave their homes only for specific reasons, and those who are unvaccinated and have not recovered from COVID-19 are required to get tested for the virus to attend work.
Meanwhile, the prevalence of COVID-19 infections in England rose to around 1 in 60 people in the week ending Nov. 27, Britain’s Office for National Statistics said on Friday, led higher by the dominant delta variant rather than newly identified omicron. The prevalence was up from 1 in 65 reported the previous week, the ONS said.
In the Americas, the Biden administration announced measures to guard against the virus spreading. From Monday, international air travellers arriving in the United States will have to have obtained a negative COVID-19 test within a day of travel.
“We’re going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion,” President Joe Biden said. Around 60 per cent of the U.S. population have been fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates among wealthy nations.
In the Middle East, OPEC and its allies agreed to stick to their existing policy of monthly oil output increases despite fears that a U.S. release from crude reserves and the new omicron coronavirus variant would lead to a fresh oil price rout.
In the Asia-Pacific region, India reported its first omicron cases but the government said it had no immediate plan to authorize booster vaccine shots despite demands from legislators.
-From The Associated Press, Reuters and CBC News, last updated at 8:20 a.m. ET