WHO warns against dismissing Omicron Covid variant as ‘mild’ after early data

'Surely we have learnt by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril,' director general of world health body says

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People underestimate coronavirus at their peril, health officials have warned, as they voiced concerns that the Omicron variant was being dismissed by some as “mild”.

Data from South Africa is still in its early stage and countries must act now in the face of a potentially “large wave of cases” of the faster-spreading strain, Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation said.

WHO Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said more work was needed to ensure people are vaccinated, as well as continuing with measures such as wearing masks and increased care in washing hands.

Earlier, Dr Angelique Coetzee, chairwoman of the South African Medical Association, told the British House of Commons science and technology committee that she agreed with a new study from the South African Medical Research Council suggesting that Omicron may be 29 per cent less severe than the first wave of infections that swept the country.

Dr Coatzee said “we don’t have all the answers”, but the clinical picture so far was that people were mostly suffering mild illness from Omicron.

But the WHO has warned against relying too heavily on early data.

“We’re concerned that people are dismissing Omicron as mild," Dr Tedros said. “Surely, we have learnt by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril.

“Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems.”

Dr Ryan said that while scientific monitoring of the variant is ongoing, “we need to be ready to deal with what is likely to happen, which is a large wave of cases, which may or may not be more or less severe but which will in themselves generate pressure on the health system”.

The executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies programme said “health systems are weaker now than they were a year ago, in reality”, as waves of Covid-19 have swept through countries.

“Unfortunately, sometimes you can get up after the first punch but it’s very hard to get up after the second and third, and that’s the difficulty,” Dr Ryan said.

He said leaders at WHO will be “the happiest people in the world” to be able to say in two or three weeks from now that “this is a much milder disease, everything is fine”.

But he warned against making assumptions.

“That’s not how this virus has behaved up to now; that’s not our experience through the three waves of this pandemic," Dr Ryan said.

“So I think the idea is to act now in the real world while we collect the data to understand exactly what this virus is capable of.”

No one who is offered a booster should feel guilty about accepting their third dose, Dr Ryan said, when asked about the UK increasing its programme.

He said countries can protect their own citizens while helping to address global vaccine inequity.

“There are governments out there, like the UK, who are trying their best to deal with the priorities of their own people and supporting, very strongly, international efforts to create equity in vaccine distribution,” Dr Ryan said.

Dr Tedros said the priority must remain “to vaccinate the unvaccinated, even in countries who have better access to vaccines”, and said shots must be combined with other health measures.

Countries can “take the heat out of the transmission by doing the simple things”, such as avoiding crowded spaces and ensuring good ventilation, Dr Ryan said.

Updated: December 15, 2021, 5:53 AM
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