COVID-19 variant Omicron (B.1.1.529) is spreading quickly throughout the south of Africa and some EU countries, leading Tedros Adhanom, General Director, WHO, to state that this variant poses “very high” global risks. However, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador claimed that citizens should not worry.
The Omicron variant was first reported in South Africa on Nov. 24, 2021, but the first confirmed Omicron infection was observed on a specimen collected on Nov. 9, 2021. South Africa saw a contagion peak during recent weeks, coinciding with the detection of this novel variant.
It is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible compared to other variants, according to WHO. The organization explained that the number of people testing positive has increased in areas in South Africa affected by this variant but epidemiologic studies are still determining if the peak was caused by Omicron or by other factors.
It is also unclear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to other variants such as Delta, according to the WHO. “Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected,” said WHO.
Vaccine manufacturers are also evaluating whether existing vaccines confer protection against this new variant and studying potential responses. “Pfizer and BioNTech took action months ago to be able to adapt the mRNA vaccine within six weeks and ship initial batches within 100 days in the event of an escape variant," said Pfizer in a communicate.
Moderna’s strategy “includes three levels of response should the currently authorized 50 µg booster dose of mRNA-1273 prove insufficient to boost waning immunity against the Omicron variant,” said the company in an official communicate.
Based on WHO’s estimates and updates, President López Obrador claimed that there are no reasons to worry about the variant: “there are no risk reasons, we should not panic.” He stated that the country’s health system is ready to face the new variant.
Based on the WHO’s evidence so far, Deputy Minister of Health, Hugo López-Gatell also stated that travel restrictions or border closures are unhelpful measures because “they affect the finances and wellbeing of the people. The information disseminated on the risks of the new variant is disproportionate to what the existing scientific evidence shows,” he shared on his twitter account.
US President Joe Biden also said that the variant is a cause of concert but not a reason to panic. Biden’s Chief Medical Advisor Anthony Fauci said that travel bans with a highly transmissible virus never completely prevent it from entering new countries. “What you can do is you can delay it enough to get us better prepared,” said Fauci.