WHO’s top scientist says Omicron could displace Delta

Somaya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the World Health Organization, attends a press conference organized by the Geneva Association of United Nations Correspondents (ACANU) amid the outbreak of COVID-19 caused by the novel coronavirus, at WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland July 3, 2020 Fabrice Cofferini/Paul via Reuters

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  • Cases of highly contagious Omicron, S.African are doubling every day
  • Swaminathan says it is not yet clear if Omicron is milder
  • Vaccine may not need to be adapted to Omicron
  • It is unclear where Omicron appeared, S Africa unfairly punished
  • “A clear relationship between inequality and the evolution of variables”

(Reuters) – The World Health Organization’s chief scientist said at the upcoming Reuters conference on Friday that the Omicron variant could become dominant because it is highly transmissible, but that a different vaccine may not be needed.

Somaya Swaminathan also said it was too early to say whether Omicron was milder than other variants of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and cast doubt on its origin, saying it was not certain that it emerged in South Africa.

“It could become the dominant one,” Swaminathan said, adding that however it is impossible to predict. She said the delta variant now accounts for 99% of infections globally.

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Scientists in the European Union and Australia speculate that Omicron may be responsible for more delta infections within a few months. Read more

She said Omicron was “highly transmissible” and cited data from South Africa showing the number of cases doubling daily.

“How worried should we be? We need to be prepared and alert, not panic, because we are in a different situation than we were a year ago,” Swaminathan said in an interview.

She said the WHO could not at this point say that Omicron was a mild variant, even if many infections so far have been associated with less severe symptoms or no symptoms at all.

There is no conclusive evidence yet about the effect of Omicron on the efficacy of antibodies.

“It appears to be able to overcome some of the natural immunity from previous infections,” said the WHO’s chief scientist, but added that vaccines appeared to be having an effect.

“The fact that they don’t get sick… it means that vaccines still provide protection and hopefully they will continue to provide protection,” Swaminathan said.

Vaccine against all corona viruses?

Swaminathan has been cautious about the need to upgrade existing vaccines, suggesting that boosting existing shots may be enough against Omicron.

“It’s possible that the vaccines will work,” she said. “It’s possible that initially you may need an extra dose to boost the immune response.”

She added that a WHO technical advisory group was trying to find out if a new type of vaccine against Omicron was needed.

Speaking to earlier in the day, BioNTech (22UAy.DE) CEO Ugur Sahin said his company will be able to adapt its vaccine relatively quickly in response to Omicron and the next few weeks will show how urgent the upgrade is needed.

“I think in principle that in a certain period of time we will need a new vaccine against this new alternative,” Shaheen said.

Asked about the need for an annual vaccine boost, Swaminathan said “WHO is preparing for all scenarios”, which could include an additional dose, particularly among some age groups or vulnerable populations.

But, she added, “Natural infection acts as a booster.”

unknown origin

Swaminathan, a qualified pediatrician from India, raised doubts about the origin of the new variant, which was first discovered in South Africa, where the largest number of cases is also recorded.

“Where did it originate from? We don’t know,” she said, noting that she may have originated in countries that do not have enough genetic sequence.

“We may never know.”

Swaminathan said the flight ban by some countries targeting southern Africa was unfair, adding that the variant had been identified in South Africa “due to the excellent genetic sequencing and monitoring” there.

“We are appalled that they were punished for this.”

The World Health Organization said travel restrictions could buy time but was not the way to combat the Omicron variant, and urged countries to boost healthcare capabilities and vaccinate their populations. Read more

Swaminathan also urged more fairness in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and tests.

Asked if the Omicron variant had emerged if Africa had received and administer more vaccines, she said: “Absolutely.”

“There is a clear relationship between inequality in access to vaccines and the development of variants,” Swaminathan said.

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Additional reporting by Francesco Guaracchio, Stephanie Nebehay and Josephine Mason; Writing by Keith Weir and Alexander Smith; Editing by Catherine Evans

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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