The World Health Organization is warning countries that the omicron coronavirus variant poses “very high” global risk — and it is likely to spread internationally.
Omicron is a highly divergent variant with a high number of mutations, some of which are may be vaccine-resistant with higher transmissibility and other considerable uncertainties.
“The main uncertainties are (1) how transmissible the variant is and whether any increases are related to immune escape, intrinsic increased transmissibility, or both; (2) how well vaccines protect against infection, transmission, clinical disease of different degrees of severity and death; and (3) does the variant present with a different severity profile,” said WHO in a preliminary technical brief.
“The likelihood of potential further spread of Omicron at the global level is high,” the WHO said in a preliminary technical brief.
The most effective steps individuals can take to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus is to keep a physical distance of at least three feet away from others; wear a well-fitting mask; open windows to improve ventilation; avoid poorly ventilated or crowded spaces; keep hands clean; cough or sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue; and get vaccinated when it’s their turn.
WHO is working to understand the potential impact of this variant on our existing countermeasures, including vaccines.
Vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease and death, including against the dominant circulating variant, Delta.
Current vaccines remain effective against severe disease and death, according to WHO experts.
It recommended that governments worldwide enhance their ability to sequence coronavirus variants, report any local cases of omicron to the global health body and speed up their vaccination drives.
Preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron among people who have previously had COVID-19, as compared to other variants of concern, but the information is limited.
The newly identified omicron variant has 26 to 32 spike mutations, the WHO brief states, “some of which are concerning” in that they could make it more transmissible and better able to evade the body’s immune defenses.
“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 report says. “The overall global risk related to [omicron] is assessed as very high.” It added that “evidence for this assessment contains considerable uncertainty” and is subject to change.
Researchers in South Africa and around the world are conducting studies to better understand many aspects of Omicron and will continue to share the findings of these studies as they become available.
It is not yet clear whether Omicron is more easily spread from person to person compared to other variants, including Delta.
The number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant, but epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors.
It is also not yet clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, including Delta.
Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron.
There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants. Initial reported infections were among university students—younger individuals who tend to have more mild disease—but understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant will take days to several weeks.
All variants of COVID-19, including the Delta variant that is dominant worldwide, can cause severe disease or death, in particular for the most vulnerable people, and thus prevention is always key.