With the recent emergence of the Omicron variant sparking fresh fears around the world, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that a “toxic mix” of low vaccination coverage and very low testing rates is leading to fertile breeding ground and amplifying new Covid-19 variants.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Wednesday said that measures to stop the globally dominant Delta variant would also hinder ‘Omicron’, first discovered in November in southern Africa and which has since rattled countries around the world.
“But if countries and individuals don’t do what they need to do to stop transmission of Delta, they won’t stop Omicron either. Globally, we have a toxic mix of low vaccine coverage, and very low testing — a recipe for breeding and amplifying variants. That’s why we continue to urge countries to… ensure equitable access to vaccines, tests and therapeutics all over the world,” he said at a press conference.
Ghebreyesus sounded a reminder that while global attention turns to ‘Omicron,’ the world was already grappling with the “highly transmissible, dangerous” Delta variant, which currently “accounts for almost all cases” globally.
“We need to use the tools we already have to prevent transmission and save lives from Delta. And if we do that, we will also prevent transmission and save lives from Omicron,” Ghebreyesus said.
Several WHO advisory groups have met over the last couple of days to evaluate the emerging evidence, and prioritise the studies needed to answer these questions.
“We are learning more all the time about Omicron, but there’s still more to learn about its effect on transmission, severity of disease, and the effectiveness of tests, therapeutics and vaccine measures to delay or reduce the spread of the new variant, such as screening of passengers prior to travelling and/or upon arrival, or the application of quarantine to international travellers,” Ghebreyesus said.
Meanwhile, WHO in a statement said that blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.
“In addition, they can adversely impact global health efforts during a pandemic by disincentivising countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data,” it added.
A WHO official said 24 countries may have reported cases of the variant so far but that some of the early indications were that most cases were mild, with none severe.
Ghana, Nigeria, Norway, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea were among the latest countries to report cases of the variant. Britain has reported 22 cases so far, a number it said would certainly go up.