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WHO says omicron Covid variant could change course of pandemic

An employee at a downtown testing station takes a swab from a woman. In Lower Saxony, stricter Corona rules apply in many regions.

Hauke-Christian Dittrich | image alliance | Getty Images

The World Health Organization said on Wednesday that the highly mutated omicron variant of Covid-19 could change the course of the pandemic.

The exact impact is “still difficult to know,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a press briefing from the group’s headquarters in Geneva. Scientists around the world are scrambling to determine just how contagious and deadly the mutated virus has become.

“Some characteristics of the omicron, including its global spread and large number of mutations, suggest that it could have a major impact on the course of the pandemic,” Tedros said.

The virus’s genetic changes affect its virulence and indicate that it could be considerably more infectious than previous strains, according to the WHO.

Too early to say

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical officer on Covid-19, said preliminary evidence from South Africa may suggest omicron is sweeter than the delta strain, but is “too much Early to conclude on this “. Patients in the country with a milder course of the disease may not yet have undergone the full course of the infection, she added.

“It is too early to tell,” Van Kerkhove said at the briefing. “I just wanted to caution against any conclusions about the seriousness of the omicron at this time.”

However, she noted that vulnerable patients who are older, unvaccinated, or have underlying conditions have a much higher risk of developing serious illness.

The WHO remarks come as the omicron variant, first identified in southern Africa, has been found in 57 countries around the world.

New cases have “placed” around the world over the past week, the WHO added. More than 4 million new confirmed cases have been reported worldwide, similar to figures from the previous week.

Global deaths, however, have increased by 10% over the past week, the WHO report noted. More than 52,500 new deaths have been reported.

Impact on vaccines

South African scientists published a small preliminary study on the effect of omicron on vaccine effectiveness on Tuesday.

He found that the variant significantly reduced the antibody protection generated by the vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech. However, scientists have noted that people who have recovered from the virus and received a booster will likely be more protected against serious illness.

WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan told the briefing that it was still premature to conclude that this “reduction in neutralizing activity would lead to a significant reduction” in the effectiveness of the vaccine.

“We don’t know because, as you know, the immune system is much more complex,” Swaminathan said. “There are T cells, there are memory B cells, and so what we really need now is a coordinated research effort and not jumping to conclusions on you know, study by study. . “

Earlier this week, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said the company could develop a vaccine targeting the new variant by March 2022 if needed. He noted that it will take a few weeks to determine whether current vaccines provide sufficient protection against omicron.

White House chief medical adviser Dr Anthony Fauci told reporters on Tuesday that scientists should have data on the vaccine’s effectiveness against the new variant by the middle of next week.

“We will be able to determine whether or not the antibodies induced by all vaccines lose their ability to work with omicron,” Fauci said, referring to studies involving both the live virus and the “pseudo virus”. “In addition, we are conducting animal studies to assess immune protection as well as the effectiveness of antivirals. “

Distributed in Europe

The Omicron was found in 21 countries in the European Union and the European Economic Area on Wednesday, according to the European Union’s public health agency.

The European Center for Disease Prevention estimated that the variant could become the dominant strain in Europe sometime between January and March, depending on how quickly it is spreading faster than the delta.

For example, if 1% of current Covid cases in Europe are due to the new variant, and it is spreading more than twice as fast as the delta in the EU than in South Africa, it could potentially be there. become dominant by Jan. 1 with more than 50% of all new infections, according to the agency’s mathematical modeling. If it spreads 30% faster than delta, it will have to wait until March 1 before overtaking other variants in Europe, the agency said in its analysis which examined these hypothetical situations.

“The greater the growth advantage of Omicron over Delta VOC and the greater its circulation in the EU / EEA, the longer it will take for Omicron VOC to cause the majority of all SARS-CoV infections. 2 is short, ”said the European Center for Disease Prevention. in a report.

The agency noted, however, that its estimates were “rough” and based on several assumptions about the omicron variant. The results will depend on “many as yet unknown factors” regarding the transmissibility of omicron, escape of vaccine immunity and escape of natural immunity, among others.

The agency’s analysis was cited in a report released by the WHO on Wednesday.

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