Omicron spread at unprecedented speeds; wrong to think that it causes mild illness: WHO

That World Health Organization warned Tuesday that the new coronavirus variant Omicron spread at an unprecedented rate and was probably already present in most countries around the world.

Since the new, highly mutated variant was first discovered in southern Africa last month, it has been reported in 77 countries, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters.

But, he stressed, “the reality is that Omicron is likely to be in most countries, even though it has not been discovered yet.”

“Omicron is spreading at a speed we have not seen with any previous variant,” he said.

His comments came amid growing evidence that the new variant may also be better at exceeding vaccine protection than before, but may cause milder symptoms.

But Tedros warned against “rejecting Omicron as mild.”

“We have certainly learned by now that we are underestimating this virus at our peril,” he said.

“Even if Omicron causes less serious illness, the large number of cases can again overwhelm unprepared health systems.”

The WHO chief also expressed concern that many countries are rushing to give booster vaccine doses in response to the spread of Omicron in light of the persistently sharp inequality in access to vaccines between rich and poorer countries.

“The WHO is concerned that such programs will repeat the Covid-19 vaccine hoarding,” as seen earlier this year, he said.

He said there were not yet enough data to show that a third dose is needed to effectively protect healthy adults from the variant, although he said that “as we move forward, boosters may play an important role.”

At the same time, many vulnerable people in poorer countries have not yet received a single dose.

“Let me be very clear: the WHO is not against boosters. We are against inequality. Our biggest concern is saving lives everywhere,” Tedros said.

“It’s a matter of priority,” he said.

“The order matters. Giving boosters to groups at low risk of serious illness or death simply puts lives at risk for those at high risk who are still waiting for their primary doses due to supply constraints.”


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