Omicron poses very high global risk, world must prepare – WHO
The heavily mutated Omicron coronavirus variant is likely to spread internationally and poses a very high risk of infection surges that could have “severe consequences” in some places, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday (November 29)
No Omicron-linked deaths had yet been reported, though further research was needed to assess its potential to escape protection against immunity induced by vaccines and previous infections, it added.
In anticipation of increased case numbers as the variant, first reported last week, spreads, the U.N. agency urged its 194 member states to accelerate vaccination of high-priority groups and ensure plans were in place to maintain health services.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, sounded the alarm at the start of an assembly of health ministers that is expected to launch negotiations on an international agreement on preventing future pandemics.
“The emergence of the highly mutated Omicron variant underlines just how perilous and precarious our situation is,” Tedros said. “Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics: our current system disincentivises countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores.”
The new global deal, expected by May 2024, would cover issues such as sharing of data and genome sequences of emerging viruses, and of any potential vaccines derived from research.
Omicron was first reported on Nov. 24 from South Africa, where infections have risen steeply.
It has since spread to more than a dozen countries, many of which have imposed travel restrictions to try to seal themselves off. Japan on Monday (November 29) joined Israel in saying it would close its borders to foreigners.
Also speaking at the World Health Assembly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said WHO required reliable financing with higher donations from member states, and she backed it launching negotiations for a binding international accord on preventing pandemics.
Dr Richard Hatchett, CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), said emergence of variants were the consequences of inequity of access to vaccine.
“The virus is a ruthless opportunist; and the inequity that has characterized the global response has now come home to roost,” he said.