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WHO warns of dangers from Omicron variant

Initial evidence shows the risk from the new variant is "very high" and could cause surges with severe consequences, the U.N. health agency said.

Skyline of South Africa's financial capital Johannesburg
Skyline of South Africa's financial capital Johannesburg (AN/Simon Hurry)

GENEVA (AN) — Initial evidence shows a new Omicron variant poses a "very high" public health risk that could lead to "future surges of COVID-19, which could have severe consequences," the U.N. health agency cautioned on Monday.

The World Health Organization's assessment in a technical paper to its 194 member nations came as more reported cases of the variant caused an increasing number of them to ban foreign travelers from southern Africa where it was first detected.

"Omicron is a highly divergent variant with a high number of mutations, including 26‐32 in the spike, some of which are concerning and may be associated with immune escape potential and higher transmissibility. However, there are still considerable uncertainties," WHO officials wrote, referring to the number of spike mutations that raise concerns about the variant's ability to evade people's immune system responses and more easily spread.

"Given  mutations  that  may  confer  immune  escape  potential  and  possibly  transmissibility  advantage,  the  likelihood  of  potential  further  spread  of  Omicron  at  the  global  level  is  high," they wrote. "Depending  on  these  characteristics,  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 overall global risk related to the new VOC [virus of concern] Omicron is assessed as very high."

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the emergence of a highly-mutated Omicron variant underlines just how perilous and precarious the situation is around the world, and that South Africa and Botswana should be thanked for detecting, sequencing and reporting this variant — not penalized.

"Indeed, Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics: our current system disincentivizes countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores," he said, referring to a March proposal in which 25 nations joined with the European Council and World Health Organization in making an “urgent call” for creation of an international pandemic treaty.

"We don’t yet know whether Omicron is associated with more transmission, more severe disease, more risk of reinfections, or more risk of evading vaccines. Scientists at WHO and around the world are working urgently to answer these questions," Tedros told the opening of a three-day special session of the World Health Assembly, the agency's governing body, that is focused on pandemic preparedness.

"We shouldn’t need another wake-up call; we should all be wide awake to the threat of this virus," he said. "But 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."

WHO classified the new coronavirus variant on Friday as a highly transmissible virus of concern, the same category that includes the delta variant, the predominant COVID-19 strain circulating globally.

With the emergence of the new B.1.1.529 variant, which the World Health Organization named "Omicron" for a Greek letter, countries around the world rushed to restrict travel from southern Africa, where it was first identified, and financial markets fell sharply.

The Omicron variant was first reported to WHO from South Africa two days ago, said a WHO technical advisory group that tracks COVID-19's evolution.

"The epidemiological situation in South Africa has been characterized by three distinct peaks in reported cases, the latest of which was predominantly the Delta variant," the advisory group said, adding that "in recent weeks infections have increased steeply" coinciding with the Omicron variant's detection from a specimen collected on Nov. 9.

Seven of the 13 places that have sequenced a new Omicron variant — Australia, Austria, Belgium, Botswana, Britain, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Israel, South Africa and Spain — did so before South Africa alerted WHO on Nov. 25, according to tracking data from GISAID Initiative, a global database of data from all influenza viruses and the coronavirus causing COVID-19.

"This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa," the panel said.

"Individuals are reminded to take measures to reduce their risk of COVID-19," it said, "including proven public health and social measures such as wearing well-fitting masks, hand hygiene, physical distancing, improving ventilation of indoor spaces, avoiding crowded spaces, and getting vaccinated."

'It all depends on all of us'

Africa has fully vaccinated 77 million people or just 6% of its population, according to WHO officials in Africa.

The poor showing is not just due to global inequities with the distribution of coronavirus vaccines; as in wealthy nations, vaccine skepticism has slowed vaccination campaigns in Africa due to factors such as misinformation on social media, mistrust of government and health authorities and the legacy of colonial-era medicine campaigns using dubious medications with adverse side effects.

Health officials in several nations have asked vaccine manufactures to delay sending more doses until they used up the supplies they already have, and South Africa asked Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson to suspend deliveries just days before an Omicron variant was detected, according to news reports.

"Just five African countries, less than 10% of Africa’s 54 nations, are projected to hit the year-end target of fully vaccinating 40% of their people, unless efforts to accelerate the pace take off," the U.N. health agency said. "In comparison, over 70% of high-income countries have already vaccinated more than 40% of their people."

The European Commission proposed that its 27 member nations "activate the emergency brake” on travel from countries in southern African and other countries affected to limit the spread of the new variant.

"All air travel to these countries should be suspended. They should be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant. And travellers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules," said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the commission, the European Union's executive arm.

"I have spoken about the situation today with scientists and vaccine manufacturers," she said. "They, too, fully support such precautionary measures to avoid international spreading of the concerning variant. It also depends on all of us as citizens to contribute to a better control of the pandemic."

U.S. President Joe Biden said after a briefing by the White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci and members of a COVID response team that he was ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries — Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe — starting on Monday.

"The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations," he said.

Biden also called on all nations meeting at the World Trade Organization's ministerial meeting next week "to waive intellectual property protections for COVID vaccines, so these vaccines can be manufactured globally."

In May, the United States and WTO chief backed waivers to vaccine patent protections aimed at speeding efforts to end the coronavirus pandemic.

British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told the U.K. Parliament that the sequence of the new Omicron variant was first uploaded by Hong Kong from a case of someone travelling from South Africa.

He said flights from six countries – Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe – were temporarily banned until hotel quarantines could be set up.

"The U.K. was the first country to identify the potential threat of this new variant and alert international partners. Further cases have been identified in South Africa and in Botswana, and it is highly likely that it has now spread to other countries," Javid said.

"We are concerned that this new variant may pose a substantial risk to public health. The variant has an unusually large number of mutations," he said. "It shares many of the features of the Alpha, Beta and Delta variants. Early indications show this variant may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and current vaccines may be less effective against it."