Live updates: follow the latest news on Covid-19 variant Omicron
The new variant, named Omicron, was identified by South African researchers and named a variant of concern by the WHO on November 26. Since then it has been found in 24 countries.
“Risk of Covid-19 overall is high. Unless we generate enough evidence as to why the Omicron variant is different, there is no reason to panic. We have enough tools to limit the spread of this variant,” Dr Abdinasir Abubakar, manager of the WHO's Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office's Infectious Hazards Prevention, said at a briefing.
Officials said the WHO was asking governments to increase efforts to track the disease. Data show that, so far, PCR tests and diagnostic methods are able to identify the Omicron variant, they said.
“We have a lot of the tools and know how to control the spread of Omicron. We have to continue to use the same tools that we have. Scaling up vaccinations is vital as well as practicing the measures we know as individuals to stop the virus from spreading,” said Dr Richard Brennan, WHO's Regional Emergency Director for the Eastern Mediterranean region.
Dr Abubakar expressed confidence in vaccines already developed to fight Covid-19 and its previous mutations.
“Vaccines are effective against all variants listed by the WHO”, he said. “We need to increase vaccine coverage.”
Dr Ahmed Al Mandhari, WHO's regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean region, said vaccine inequity remains a significant challenge that has heightened the emergence of new variants.
“We should all be troubled by the fact that more than 80 per cent of the world’s vaccines have gone to G20 countries, while low-income countries, most of them in Africa, have received just 0.6 per cent of all vaccines,” Dr Al Mandhari said. “The longer that these inequities persist, the greater the chance of more variants.”
In the Eastern Mediterranean region, which stretches from Morocco to Pakistan and covers a population of nearly 679 million people, vaccination coverage has not yet reached 10 per cent in seven of the 22 countries and territories.
Saudi Arabia has the only reported Omicron case in the region, but “it may just be a matter of time as it spreads to other countries around the world”, he said.
So far, the organisation says, the Omicron variant appears to give mild symptoms and has not caused any deaths yet. The mutations suggest there may be an increased risk of transmission, but it is still too early to make concrete conclusions.
“The recorded symptoms of the Omicron variant have been mild. We’ll be tracking the severity of the disease and its impact on vaccines, and will be regularly updating the public,” Dr Brennan said.
The Delta variant of the disease is currently the most prevalent strain in Europe.
Dr Brennan cautioned against travel bans that will have “very negative consequences” for economies and people's livelihoods, and may serve as a deterrent for countries to declare Omicron cases or other new variants.
“There is a real downside to these international travel bans, and we have to be very analytical when deciding whether to impose such bans,” Dr Brennan said.
The WHO's 194 member states agreed on Wednesday to launch negotiations on an international pact to prevent and control future pandemics.
The European Union had pushed for agreement on an international legally-binding treaty, along with about 70 countries, but Brazil, India and the US were among those reluctant to commit to a treaty, diplomats said.
“We call for an ambitious process in developing this treaty — let us all demonstrate our multilateral commitment and engagement towards a binding instrument,” Ambassador Lotte Knudsen, head of the EU delegation to the United Nations in Geneva, said in a statement on Wednesday.
More than 262.22 million people have reportedly been infected with Covid-19 and the disease has killed more than 5.46 million since it emerged in December 2019.