Since the B.1.1.529 variant was declared a Variant of Concern and assigned the name Omicron on 26 November 2021, our understanding of this variant has increased considerably, thanks to collaborative global research and the passing of time, allowing us to observe its behaviour and how it affects individuals and communities over a number of weeks. Unfortunately, as there are knowledge gaps around Omicron, we have seen a great deal of speculation, assumptions and misinformation being communicated about the variant, making it difficult for individuals and authorities to take informed decisions for health protection.
The latest epidemiological data shows that we are now seeing a rapid increase in the rate of infection of COVID-19 in the WHO European Region, largely as a result of the spread of the new Omicron variant. To put this into scale, in September 2021, we were experiencing over 1 million new COVID-19 cases a week, but by the first week of January 2022 this had increased to more than 7 million reported cases in a single week.
The omicron variant of COVID-19 is dangerous — and especially so for those who have not been vaccinated against the disease, the World Health Organization warned Wednesday. The WHO said the global surge in cases was being driven by omicron, which is more transmissible than the previously dominant delta variant. More than 15 million cases were reported to the WHO last week — with millions more cases thought to have gone unrecorded.
But the U.N. health agency insisted there should be no surrender to the variant, dismissing the notion that it could be a welcome conduit to ending the pandemic. “While omicron causes less severe disease than delta, it remains a dangerous virus — particularly for those who are unvaccinated,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference.
“We mustn’t allow this virus a free ride or wave the white flag, especially when so many people around the world remain unvaccinated.” The “overwhelming majority” of people admitted to hospitals are un-jabbed, he added. While vaccines remain very effective at preventing death and severe COVID-19 disease, they do not fully prevent transmission, said Tedros.
“More transmission means more hospitalizations, more deaths, more people off work — including teachers and health workers — and more risk of another variant emerging that is even more transmissible and more deadly than omicron.” Tedros said that the numbers of deaths worldwide had stabilized at around 50,000 per week. “Learning to live with this virus does not mean we can, or should, accept this number of deaths,” he said.
Tedros wanted every country to have 10% of their population vaccinated by the end of September 2021, 40% by the end of December, and 70% by mid-2022. But 90 countries have still not reached 40% — with 36 of them still short of the 10% mark, he said.
“In Africa, over 85% of people are yet to receive a single dose of vaccine. We can’t end the acute phase of the pandemic unless we close this gap,” said Tedros. Wealthier countries had made it “three times as hard” for dose-starved low-income nations by exporting misinformation rather than vaccines, said Bruce Aylward, the WHO’s frontman on accessing coronavirus tools.
The WHO says omicron had been identified in 149 countries by Jan. 6. Some hope that due to its increased transmissibility, omicron will replace more severe variants and see COVID-19 shift from a pandemic into an endemic disease that is more manageable. But WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said: “This is not the time to declare this is a welcome virus.”
Maria Van Kerkhove the WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, said it was difficult to predict the road ahead and omicron was unlikely to be the last variant preoccupying minds at the U.N. health agency. “We expect the virus will continue to evolve and become more fit … we expect to see outbreaks among unvaccinated individuals,” she said.
“The virus is well on its way to becoming endemic — but we’re not there yet.” Meanwhile Tedros said pregnant women were not at higher risk of catching COVID-19, but were at higher risk of developing severe disease if they did so. He called for pregnant women to have access to vaccines, and to be included in trials for new treatments and jabs.
The effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, as with many other vaccines, such as the one for flu, wanes over time, so if you are offered a booster jab, take it. This will literally boost your protection against severe disease from Omicron and other variants of COVID-19. This advice is especially important for people in at-risk groups, such as those over 60 years of age and people with underlying health conditions, who are at most risk from becoming seriously ill from infection. Health care workers should also get a booster jab due to their high risk of exposure to the virus and the danger of spreading it to the vulnerable people they care for.
Based on the evidence that WHO have so far, all preventive measures that work against the Delta variant continue to be effective against Omicron – and this includes mask wearing. Omicron is moving so quickly that, in addition to vaccination, all other preventive measures – wearing a mask; cleaning hands; physical distancing; avoiding closed, confined or crowded spaces; coughing or sneezing into a bent elbow or tissue; and ensuring good ventilation – are needed to stem the wave of infection and protect health workers and systems.
It is important to recognize that we still have some way to go to ending the pandemic. Although we are currently reporting fewer hospitalizations and deaths across the Region as a whole, we are, however, dealing with a huge surge in COVID-19 cases. And even though Omicron is quickly gaining ground in the Region, the majority of current COVID-19 cases is still being caused by the Delta variant, which is known to cause severe disease and death. In those countries where Omicron is becoming or has become the dominant variant, we are also seeing COVID-19 cases doubling every 1.5 to 3 days – with hospitalizations rapidly rising as a result.
We therefore cannot afford to drop our guard. Regardless of where you live, or your age, you still need to get vaccinated when it’s your turn, with a complete course and booster dose if offered, and continue to take all the other preventive measures, both to protect yourself and others. Ending the pandemic requires us to get to much higher levels of vaccination in key target groups in the Region and beyond. This is as much about vaccine equity between countries as within countries, and it must include getting all vulnerable individuals and health care workers vaccinated as a priority.
Additionally, misinformation and disinformation fuel mistrust. This puts health and lives at risk; undermines trust in science, institutions and health systems; and hinders the response to the pandemic. Whenever misinformation and disinformation clash with evidence-based science, another person is impeded from making the right decisions to protect their health.