The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Monday that the 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. However, the variant is already spreading internationally.
Omicron was first reported on Nov. 24 from South Africa, where infections have risen steeply. Four fully vaccinated and one unvaccinated first contracted the new variant.
Omicron has since spread to more than a dozen countries, many of which have imposed travel restrictions to try to seal themselves off. Japan on Monday joined Israel in saying it would close its borders completely to foreigners.
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 vaccinated persons, meanwhile, “COVID-19 cases and infections are expected … albeit in a small and predictable proportion.”
So far this has turned out to be false as numbers amongst the fully vaccinated are rising rapidly.
Overall, there were “considerable uncertainties in the magnitude of immune escape potential of Omicron,” and more data is expected in the coming weeks.
No Omicron-linked deaths had yet been reported, though further research was needed to assess its resistance to vaccines and immunity induced by previous infections.
“Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerned for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,” the WHO said.
“The overall global risk …is assessed as very high.”
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said Omicron’s emergence showed how “perilous and precarious” the situation was.
“Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics,” he told the start of an assembly of health ministers expected to launch negotiations on such an agreement.