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WHO: More research needed but Omicron poses high global risk

Variant highlights why world needs new accord on pandemics, says WHO chief

GENEVA The heavily mutated Omicron coronavirus variant is likely to spread internationally and poses a very high risk of infection surges that could have "severe consequences" in some places, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said yesterday.

No Omicron-linked deaths had yet been reported, though further research was needed to assess its potential to resist vaccines and immunity induced by previous infections, it added.

Anticipating increased case numbers as the variant, first reported last week, spreads, the UN agency urged its 194 member states to accelerate vaccination of high-priority groups.

"Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic," the WHO said.

"The overall global risk... is assessed as very high."

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Omicron's emergence showed how "perilous and precarious" the situation is.

"Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics," he said at the start of an assembly of health ministers expected to launch negotiations on such an agreement.

"Our current system disincentivises countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores."

The new global deal, expected by May 2024, would cover issues such as sharing of data and genome sequences of emerging viruses, and of any potential vaccines derived from research.

PREDICTIONS

Scientist Richard Hatchett, chief executive of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a foundation that funds vaccine development, said Omicron's emergence fulfilled predictions that transmission of the virus in areas with low vaccination rates would speed up its evolution.

"The inequity that has characterised the global response has now come home to roost," he told the assembly, noting that Botswana and South Africa had fully vaccinated less than a quarter of their populations.

Omicron was first reported on Nov 24 from South Africa, where infections have risen steeply.

The WHO reiterated that pending further advice, countries should use a "risk-based approach to adjust international travel measures", while acknowledging that a rise in coronavirus cases might lead to higher morbidity and mortality rates.

"The impact on vulnerable populations would be substantial, particularly in countries with low vaccination coverage," it added.

In those who are vaccinated, "Covid-19 cases and infections are expected... albeit in a small and predictable proportion".

Overall, there were "considerable uncertainties in the magnitude of immune escape potential of Omicron", and more data was expected within weeks. - REUTERS

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