WHO director warns omicron spreading at rate 'not seen with any previous' variant

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World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a briefing Tuesday that the omicron variant of the coronavirus is spreading at a rate not seen with any other variant. 

The leader, speaking from Geneva, told reporters omicron had been detected in 77 countries thus far, but noted that “the reality is that omicron is probably in most countries, even if it hasn’t been detected yet.”

“Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant,” he said. 

Tedros also raised concerns within the agency regarding “people [who] are dismissing omicron as mild.” 

“Surely, we have learned 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,” he warned. 

Tedros emphasized the importance of doing it “all,” “consistently” and “well,” referring to vaccination against COVID-19 in addition to other safety practices like social distancing, ventilation, hand hygiene and wearing a mask.

“I need to be very clear: vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis,” he said. 

Tedros highlighted a gap in vaccination rates, pointing out that the WHO is concerned COVID-19 booster programs could “repeat the COVID-19 vaccine hoarding we saw this year and exacerbate inequity.”

He said that boosters could play an important role for those at highest risk for severe illness and death – and that “evolving evidence suggests a small decline in the effectiveness of vaccines against severe COVID-19 and death” – but was wary about rolling out the additional shots for entire adult populations “even while we lack evidence for the effectiveness of boosters against this variant.”

“Let me be very clear: WHO is not against boosters,” Tedros added. “We’re against inequity. Our main concern is to save lives, everywhere.” 

On Tuesday, vaccine-maker Pfizer said that its experimental pill to treat the virus appears effective against the “variant of concern.” 

Previously, Pfizer and BioNTech said that three doses of the companies’ vaccine “neutralize” omicron and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told NBC’s “Today” show earlier this month that the booster shot would be enough to “maintain protection” against the variant.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday in an interview on “Today” that omicron is in 33 U.S. states. 

She said it “is more transmissible,” and that her agency was “starting to see some early data that is demonstrating some decreased severity” in omicron. 

In an interview with The Associated Press last week, Walensky said more than 40 people had been infected with the variant in the U.S. so far, with no deaths reported.

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