According to the World Health Organization, early research suggests that the Omicron Covid type is more likely than earlier variants to reinfect people who have already had the virus or been vaccinated, however it may also cause milder symptoms.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters that “emerging data from South Africa suggests an elevated risk of Omicron reinfection,” adding that “some research suggests Omicron induces milder disease than Delta.”
He stressed, however, that more evidence was needed before drawing any judgments, and he urged countries throughout the world to step up monitoring to assist piece together a more complete picture of Omicron’s activities.
The upbeat assessments came as global concern over the highly mutated variant grew, pushing dozens of countries to re-impose border controls and raising the possibility of a return to economically damaging lockdowns.
Tedros warned against complacency if Omicron was discovered to cause less severe disease. If it turns out that Omicron produces less severe sickness, Tedros cautioned against letting up on viral vigilance.
He cautioned, “Any complacency now will cost lives.”
Michael Ryan, WHO’s director of emergencies, agreed, saying that the data shows the variant is “efficiently spreading, and perhaps more efficiently transmitting even than the Delta version” so far.
He said, “That does not mean the infection is unstoppable.”
“However, this means that the virus is more effective in spreading between humans.” As a result, we must step up our efforts to disrupt those transmission networks in order to safeguard ourselves and others.”
Even if the new version proves to be less harmful than earlier variants and spreads more quickly, it could still infect more people, overburden health systems, and cause “more people to die,” he warned.
The WHO experts stressed the importance of vaccination, adding that even if vaccines are less effective against Omicron than some studies show, they should still give significant protection against severe disease.
The chief WHO scientist, Soumya Swaminathan, cautioned against overreacting to early findings suggesting that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine may have been less effective against the new strain.
She pointed out that the studies so far had been small, and that the reduction in “neutralizing activity” varied a lot between trials, ranging from four to fivefold in some to up to 40-fold in others.
They also concentrated primarily on antibody neutralization, despite the fact that “we know the immune system is substantially more sophisticated than that,” according to her.
“I believe it is premature to conclude that this loss in neutralizing activity would result in a major decrease in vaccine effectiveness,” she said. “That is something we are unaware of.”