'New kid' Omicron variant threatens vaccine campaign

Hard-won gains could vanish in an instant, WHO chief says

In Britain, mask-wearing in shops and on public transport will be required from Tuesday in attempt to staunch Omicron's spread. AP
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The Omicron variant is likely to spread internationally, posing a “very high” risk where Covid-19 mitigation plans are not in place, the World Health Organisation said on Monday.

WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that “hard-won gains could vanish in an instant".

“Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,” a WHO assessment said.

“The overall global risk related to the new variant of concern Omicron is assessed as very high.”

Abu Dhabi announced it had secured new treatment that would be made available to infected patients. The monoclonal antibody cocktail of casirivimab and imdevimab — known as Regen-Cov in some markets — has been given to people with Covid-19 who are likely to develop severe symptoms.

“We have taken a significant step towards improving healthcare services in Abu Dhabi,” said Dr Jamal Al Kaabi, undersecretary of the Department of Health - Abu Dhabi.

Booster shot bookings opened to the public in Dubai on Monday for residents who were vaccinated against coronavirus more than six months ago. People who took two doses of Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca or Sputnik V can book a third shot.

Shortened Covid booster times in UK

Britain announced it would offer a Covid-19 booster vaccine to all adults and give second doses to children aged between 12 and 15. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said that all adults between 18 and 39 years old could receive shots, extending a programme that is already open for over-40s.

The committee also said that the gap between second doses and boosters could be shortened to three months from six months, in response to the changing risk posed by Omicron.

“Having a booster dose of the vaccine will help to increase our level of protection against the Omicron variant,” said Wei Shen Lim, the committee's chairman of Covid-19 immunisation.

Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England, said it would be wrong to see the current situation as all “doom and gloom".

He said that many variants had emerged during the pandemic and these have caused concern because it is unknown how they will behave and how the vaccines will hold up.

“We are, at that moment, with Omicron; it is the new kid on the block for now and I think it's true to say that scientists around the world, not just in the UK, agree that this one is of increased concern,” he said.

“If vaccine effectiveness is reduced — as seems pretty likely, to some extent — the biggest effects are likely to be in preventing infections and, hopefully, there will be smaller effects in preventing severe disease.”

Since its discovery last week by researchers in South Africa, governments have rushed to close borders as cases are discovered in countries around the globe. Japan announced on Monday it was imposing a ban on the entry of non-resident foreigners.

Morocco banned all incoming flights while other countries, including the US, GCC countries and European states, have moved to prohibit travellers arriving from certain countries in southern Africa.

UAE residents were among those suffering from the disruption as families cancelled winter travel plans amid concerns over the spread of the new variant.

The G7 health ministers said the variant is highly transmissible and requires “urgent action”, as they praised South Africa's “exemplary work” for both detecting the coronavirus strain and alerting others to it.

It's inevitable that, sooner or later, it's going to spread widely
Anthony Fauci, US chief medical adviser

“The global community is faced with the threat of a new, at a first evaluation, highly transmissible variant of Covid-19, which requires urgent action,” a statement said.

“Ministers also recognised the strategic relevance of ensuring access to vaccines, including a surge for vaccines absorption and country readiness for receiving and deploying Covid vaccines, providing operational assistance, taking forward our donation commitments and tackling vaccine misinformation as well as supporting research and development.”

Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease official, said on Monday he did not expect the US to go further than the travel measures already announced. He urged more Americans to be vaccinated and receive booster shots if eligible.

“Obviously, we're on high alert,” Dr Fauci, who also serves as chief medical adviser to the White House, told ABC News. “It's inevitable that, sooner or later, it's going to spread widely.”

The UK travel industry reacted with frustration and anger on Monday at the reintroduction of travel bans after the emergence of the Omicron variant.

Former British Airways boss Willie Walsh was among the dissenting voices on Monday, describing the move as “knee-jerk".

“It’s clear that these measures have been completely ineffective in the past but impose huge hardship on people who are trying to connect with family and friends — and massive financial damage to the tourism and airline industry,” he told the BBC.

Mr Walsh, director general of the International Air Transport Association, said travel bans had “no long-term benefit” and proposed a “sensible testing regime” as an alternative.

Updated: November 30, 2021, 6:08 AM