Omicron spread rapid, sheer numbers can overwhelm: WHO

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday warned that highly transmissible Omicron variant is spreading at a rate not seen with any previous variant of Covid-19 — underlining that even if it causes less severe disease, “the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems”.

On Tuesday, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, during the media briefing on Covid-19, also flagged that while 77 countries have now reported cases of Omicron, the reality is that Omicron is probably in most countries, even if it hasn’t been detected yet. “Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant,” Tedros said.

“We’re concerned that people are dismissing Omicron as mild… Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems,” he said.


Debate on booster shot

While some countries are rolling out booster programmes for their adult population, WHO has expressed concern at the lack of evidence for effectiveness of boosters against Omicron. It could lead to vaccine hoarding and exacerbate inequity, WHO says.

Highlighting that “vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis”, Tedros said, “It’s not vaccines instead of masks. It’s not vaccines instead of distancing. It’s not vaccines instead of ventilation or hand hygiene. Do it all…”

He further said there is “evolving evidence” that suggests a small decline in the effectiveness of vaccines against severe disease and death — and a decline in preventing mild disease or infection.

Tedros reiterated that WHO is not against booster. “We are against inequity… It’s a question of prioritisation… Giving boosters to groups at low risk of severe disease or death simply endangers the lives of those at high risk still waiting for primary doses.”

“On the other hand, giving additional doses to people at high risk can save more lives than giving primary doses to those at low risk…” Tedros said.

The WHO, in the latest technical briefing on Omicron, has said that based on current limited evidence, it appears that the new variant has a growth advantage over Delta.

“…It is likely that Omicron will outpace the Delta variant where community transmission occurs. There are still limited data… While preliminary findings from South Africa suggest it may be less severe than Delta, and all cases reported in the EU/EEA to date have been mild or asymptomatic, it remains unclear to what extent Omicron may be inherently less virulent,” it said.

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