The omicron variant first discovered in South Africa last week is likely to quickly spread around the globe, possibly with “severe consequences,” the World Health Organization warned Monday.
“There could be future surges of COVID-19, which could have severe consequences depending on a number of factors including where surges may take place,” the WHO said in a technical brief. “The overall global risk related to the (omicron variant) is assessed as very high.”
The WHO said there is currently no information to suggest symptoms associated with omicron differ from those associated with other variants. No deaths linked to the omicron variant have been reported, WHO added.
The U.S. will need about two more weeks to learn more definitive information about the omicron variant’s transmissibility and severity, Dr. Anthony Fauci told President Joe Biden on Sunday, the White House said in a statement. The variant already has been identified in countries across the world, including France, Canada, Australia and Hong Kong.
Despite the unknowns of omicron, Fauci told Biden that he believes “existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID,” reiterating that booster shots on top of full vaccination will provide stronger protection. About 36% of Americans have gotten their booster shots, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said last week.
Also in the news:
►Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy was placed in the NFL’s protocol on Monday and will miss Thursday night’s game in New Orleans. McCarthy has said he is vaccinated; vaccinated staffers only land in protocol upon testing positive.
►”Vaccine” is Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2021: “The biggest science story of our time quickly became the biggest debate in our country, and the word at the center of both stories is vaccine.”
►Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general, said it’s “unacceptable” for some countries to vaccinate groups at very low risk of severe disease and give boosters to healthy adults while just 1 in 4 African health workers has been vaccinated.
►The Virginia Department of Health will be monitoring sewage in an effort to predict future outbreaks of COVID-19. Infected people shed the virus in bodily waste, even if they’re not showing symptoms. The goal is to provide warnings before a surge begins.
► Scotland’s Health Secretary Humza Yousaf said Monday that six cases of the omicron variant have been detected there. “Enhanced” contact tracing was underway.
►The U.S. on Monday began restricting travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. Meanwhile, the WHO urged countries not to impose flight bans on southern African nations: “South Africa should be thanked for detecting, sequencing and reporting this variant, not penalized.”
📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 48 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 776,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 261 million cases and nearly 5.1 million deaths. More than 196 million Americans — roughly 59.1% of the population — are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
📘What we’re reading: After nearly two years of combating COVID-19, health experts thought the U.S. would have been in a better position to control the pandemic. Instead, many people remain unvaccinated and ignore mitigation measures, slowing the pace of progress and burning out health care professionals.
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Scores of variants are popping up and circulating around the globe every day, but only a dozen before omicron have risen to the level of concern or interest for the WHO. To be labeled a “variant of concern,” omicron must be associated with an “increase in transmissibility or detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology, or increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation, or decrease in effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics,” according to the WHO.
Omicron is the 15th letter in the Greek alphabet. It uses the uppercase “Ο” and lowercase “ο” symbols.
– Ryan W. Miller
The World Health Organization’s World Health Assembly began a special session Monday to discuss a new global treaty for responding to future pandemics. The special session, just the second in the history of the WHO, will last until Wednesday.
The session is geared toward establishing a process to draft agreements “on pandemic preparedness and response,” according to a news release from the organization. Tedros told the gathering the international response to the pandemic has been slow and uncoordinated.
“Omicron’s very emergence is another reminder that although many of us might think we are done with COVID-19, it is not done with us,” Tedros said. “We are living through a cycle of panic and neglect. Hard-won gains could vanish in an instant.”
Cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus popped up in countries on opposite sides of the world Sunday as many governments rushed to close their borders.
Japan announced it would suspend entry of all foreign visitors hours after Israel decided to bar entry to foreigners. Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday — among a growing raft of travel curbs being imposed by nations around the world as they scrambled to slow the variant’s spread.
Scientists in several places, from Hong Kong to Europe, have confirmed its presence since South Africa announced its presence last week.
“This time the world showed it is learning,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, singling out South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for praise. “South Africa’s analytic work and transparency and sharing its results was indispensable in allowing a swift global response. It no doubt saved many lives.”
Canada’s health minister says the country’s first two cases of omicron were found in Ontario after two individuals who had recently traveled from Nigeria tested positive.
Contributing: The Associated Press