The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that the Omicron variant is spreading faster than other variants as it is now present in 77 countries.
WHO Director-General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said at a news briefing at WHO headquarters in Geneva that it would be a mistake to dismiss the COVID-19 strain as mild.
“Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant. We’re concerned that people are dismissing Omicron as mild.
Surely, we have learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril.”
The director-general urged countries not to underestimate the new variant. Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems.
“I need to be very clear: vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis. Countries can – and must – prevent the spread of Omicron with measures that work today.”
Ghebreyesus warned that making choices about strategies to halt the pandemic was the wrong approach: “It’s not vaccines instead of distancing. It’s not vaccines instead ventilation or hand hygiene. Do it all. Do it consistently. Do it well.”
He said in the past ten weeks, the international vaccine rollout initiative, COVAX, has shipped more vaccines than in the first nine months of the year combined, with most countries using vaccines as fast as they get them.
“A small group of countries are facing challenges rolling out vaccines and scaling up rapidly, and WHO and our partners are working closely with those countries to overcome bottlenecks.
Although we expect further improvements in supply, there are no guarantees, and the hard-won gains we have made are fragile,” he said.
Ghebreyesus said: “evolving evidence suggests a small decline in the effectiveness of vaccines against severe disease and death”.