The World Health Organization says new data is emerging every day about the potential impact of the new omicron variant on the coronavirus pandemic, but that it is premature to draw conclusions about the severity of the infection.

Since omicron was detected two weeks ago in South Africa, it has spread rapidly to 57 countries. The World Health Organization says certain features of the new coronavirus variant, including its global speed and large number of mutations, suggest it could have a major impact on the evolution of the pandemic. 

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says omicron appears to be extremely contagious, with cases in South Africa rising more quickly than the delta variant. That indicates an increased risk of re-infection with omicron, he says, but adds that more data is needed to draw firmer conclusions. 

“There is also some evidence that omicron causes milder diseases than delta,” he said. “But again, it is still too early to be definitive. Any complacency now will cost lives. Many of those who do not die could be left battling long COVID or post-COVID condition.” 

Tedros says governments and individuals must act now and use all the tools available. He says all governments should re-assess and revise their national plans based on their current situation and capacity. 

“Accelerate vaccine coverage in the most at-risk populations in all countries, intensify efforts to drive transmission down and keep it down with a tailored mix of public health measures,” he said. “Scale up surveillance, testing, and sequencing and share samples with the international community.” 

The WHO chief is urging nations to avoid what he calls the kind of ineffective and discriminatory travel bans that were slapped on southern African countries days after they reported the presence of the omicron variant. 

New evidence, however, reveals that omicron was present in western Europe before the first cases in southern Africa were officially identified. 

The WHO is warning that governments are likely to withhold important scientific information if they believe they will be punished for being transparent.

The message may be getting through. Tedros notes that France and Switzerland have lifted their travel bans on southern Africa. He is urging other countries to follow their lead. 

 

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