The World Health Organisation (WHO) says cases of the new Omicron variant have been reported in at least 23 countries in five of the six WHO regions.
WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, disclosed on Wednesday, December 1, in Geneva; and said that the number of cases was expected to grow.
“WHO takes this development extremely seriously; and so should every country,” he told journalists listening in to the agency’s regular virtual briefing on COVID-19.
“But it should not surprise us. This is what viruses do. And it’s what this virus will continue to do; as long as we allow it to continue spreading,” he said.
Preliminary evidence suggests Omicron may have “potential immune escape” and or possibly higher transmissibility, when compared to previous variants of concern, according to WHO’s latest weekly epidemiological update on COVID-19, also released on Wednesday.
He said experts were learning more about the variant, “but there’s still more to learn about its effect on transmission; severity of disease, and the effectiveness of tests, therapeutics, and vaccines.”
The WHO chief urged countries to take “rational, proportional risk-reduction measures”, including those aimed at delaying or reducing spread, such as screening passengers or implementing quarantines for international travellers.
However, he stressed that “blanket travel bans would not prevent the international spread of Omicron; and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.”
Ghebreyesus emphasised the need to continue public health measures against coronavirus spread; and ensure high-risk and vulnerable people are fully vaccinated.
He warned that the current “toxic mix” of low vaccine coverage; and very low testing are a recipe for breeding and amplifying variants.
“We need to use the tools we already have to prevent transmission and save lives from Delta.
“And if we do that, we will also prevent transmission and save lives from Omicron. But if countries and individuals don’t do what they need to do; to stop transmission of Delta, they won’t stop Omicron either,” he said.
As of Tuesday, there were more than 261 million confirmed cases of the COVID-19 globally, and 5.2 million deaths, with the Delta variant, continuing to dominate
Meanwhile, the director-general said agreement by countries to launch a process to develop a new global accord on pandemic prevention and response was cause for hope.
Ghebreyesus welcomed the consensus decision reached during a special session of the World Health Assembly (WHA), the UN agency’s top decision-making body, attended by representatives from its 194 member-states.