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The World Health Organization said Friday that the Covid-Omicron variant was detected in 38 countries, up from 23 two days ago, with early data suggesting the strain is more contagious than Delta.
“We’re seeing an increasing rate of growth, we’re seeing more and more omicrons being discovered,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical director for Covid-19, during a Q&A livestream on the group’s social media channels on Friday. “But we have reports of Omicron in 38 countries in all six WHO regions.”
“There is an indication of increased portability. We need to understand whether it is more or less negotiable compared to Delta,” said Van Kerkhove, noting that the Delta variant is still prevalent around the world.
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Emergency Health Program, said, “The virus clearly appears to be transmitting efficiently.”
“And we’ve seen this before at Delta. So again, there are certain things we shouldn’t be surprised about,” said Ryan.
Omicron has about 30 mutations on the spike protein, the mechanism used to attach to human cells. Some of these mutations are linked to higher transmission and the ability to escape immune protection, according to the WHO.
South African scientists found this week that when compared to previous variants of the virus, Omicron has been linked to a “significant ability” to re-infect people who have already had Covid. The study, published by the South African Center for Epidemiological Modeling and Analysis and the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, has not yet been peer-reviewed.
Van Kerkhove said it was too early to understand the severity of the disease caused by omicrones. Early reports of mild symptoms in some of the first cases it was identified were based on a group of university students who tend to be younger and have milder symptoms than older adults, she said.
“There have been initial reports that it was milder, but it’s really too early,” said Van Kerkhove. “Everyone who is infected with SARS-CoV-2, regardless of the variant, always starts with a mild illness. And so it might stop with a mild illness, some people are of course asymptomatic, but it can stop with a mild illness or something “may take some time”.
Van Kerkove said hospital stays are increasing in South Africa, but public health officials have not yet seen an increased risk of death, but they are waiting for more data.
Ryan said public health officials initially saw mild cases with the Alpha and Delta variants as well. It could be two weeks before increased Omicron-related mortality is detected if the variant actually causes a more severe illness.
“It takes time, unfortunately,” said Ryan. “We have seen this in previous waves of this pandemic as well. When the incidence rate increases, it takes a week or two for it to lead to hospital admissions and deaths.”
Van Kerkhove warned that there is a reporting bias at the moment that may obscure how virulent the variant really is. Many of the people around the world who tested positive for Omicron have been healthy travelers, which may explain why the symptoms reported so far are mild.
“When you travel you are not sick or you shouldn’t travel when you are sick,” said Van Kerkhove. “So there is a bias in what is being recognized at the moment, but that will change over time.”
The first person in the United States to test positive for Omicron was a fully vaccinated traveler between the ages of 18 and 49 who was returning to the San Francisco area from South Africa.
Van Kerkhove called on nations around the world to step up genetic sequencing of Covid-19 cases to identify new variants and share the results publicly in order to better understand the evolution of the virus.
“Now is the time to strengthen the systems,” she said. “We’ve been hearing that for a long time, but it’s not too late for that – systems need to be strengthened.”
Van Kerkhove noted that South Africa was the first country to report Omicron to WHO, but the schedule could change as more countries are backlog of Covid cases as of November.
“So some of the earliest cases of this particular variant may not occur in South Africa,” she said.
Van Kerkhove and Ryan said the current vaccines are still the most effective measure to slow down the transmission of the virus. Ryan said there was “a clear link” between vaccine injustice and the development of variants around the world. WHO has repeatedly criticized rich nations for not doing enough to provide vaccines to people in poorer countries.
Pfizer and Moderna have announced that it will take about two weeks for researchers to know how Omicron is affecting the current vaccines while researchers collect data.
“Right now there’s no need to change the vaccines we’re currently using,” said Ryan. “There is no evidence of it. There is no evidence of change, but there is a lot of work to see how we could change these vaccines if we did change, and that work has to be done in advance.”