The World Health Organisation (WHO) warns that the Omicron coronavirus variant presents a “very high” risk to global health due to potentially increased rates of transmission.
The Omicron variant presents a high likelihood of wider transmission, says WHO in a technical brief published this past weekend. Much is unknown about the variant, although a significant number of mutations present in the virus has raised alarm bells for health experts.
According to WHO, the “mutations that may confer immune escape potential and possible transmissibility advantage” increase the likelihood that the variant will spread far and fast. In other words, WHO is worried that the nature of the variant could lead to higher infection rates and reduced vaccine effectiveness against the strain.
While there is much more to learn before making broader assessments, WHO noted the variant was “of concern” this past week. For vulnerable nations, such as those with low vaccination rates, this risk could be enhanced.
The variant was first identified in South Africa last week but has since been found in several other nations. Cases have been reported across Europe, North America, and Australia, among other countries.
Three cases have been confirmed in Australia at the time of writing.
Health experts have said the high number of mutations and spike proteins present in the Omicron variant makes it substantially different from previous coronavirus strains.
WHO advises its 194 Member States to further investigate confirmed cases of the Omicron variant and report cases of the variant to their organisation. Furthermore, it is recommended to “accelerate COVID-19 vaccination coverage as rapidly as possible, especially among populations designated as high priority”.
High priority nations are largely those with low vaccination rates.
The use of established health measures such as mask-wearing, physical distancing, and hand hygiene are also “key to reducing transmission”.
WHO says it anticipates increased COVID-19 caseloads and enhanced pressure on health and hospital systems. Member States are encouraged to prepare accordingly.
No deaths have yet been linked to the Omicron coronavirus variant.
It is likely to be weeks before the severity of the variant is confidently determined, but preliminary reports have shown mild symptoms among positive cases.