Even if Omicron is less severe, the WHO says it can still overwhelm hospitals.
Early evidence suggests the Omicron coronavirus variant might cause less severe illness, but that doesn't mean the world should let its guard down.
The head of the World Health Organization issued a clear warning to countries around the world on Tuesday, saying that variant is likely spreading faster than experts know and that it could cause major problems if it's not taken seriously.
"Surely we have learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril," Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news conference.
Tedros said that Omicron has been confirmed in 77 countries to date and that it's likely already spread to other countries where it hasn't been detected yet.
Experts are still studying the variant that was first reported to the WHO from South Africa last month, and preliminary evidence "suggests a reduction in vaccine efficacy against infection and transmission" of the variant. It may also be more transmissible, and findings from South Africa suggest it may be less severe than the Delta variant, although more information is needed to confirm this.
"Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems," Tedros said. He added that countries must make it a "priority" to vaccinate the unvaccinated.
Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant. I need to be very clear: vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis.\nIt\u2019s not vaccines instead of masks, distancing, ventilation or hand hygiene.\nDo it all. Do it consistently. Do it well.pic.twitter.com/YAVfJXsviQ— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus) 1639509803
South Africa first sounded the alarm about Omicron in November. The WHO moved quickly to give it a name and declare it a variant of concern within a matter of days, and many countries responded by closing their borders to travellers from South Africa and neighbouring countries.
Still, Omicron is spreading quickly, and countries in Europe are now locking down to stop it.
U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid warned on Tuesday that the country's hospitals could soon be overwhelmed by the variant.
"This is a new national mission," he told lawmakers, as they voted to approve stricter health measures. "A race between the virus and the vaccine to get as many people protected as possible."
Dr. Jenny Harries, the head of the UK Health Security Agency, said the virus is "doubling faster [and] growing faster" than experts first thought.
She added that Omicron is "probably the most significant threat we've had since the start of the pandemic," the Associated Press reports.
Pfizer and BioNTech have said that preliminary lab studies showed that a third dose of their vaccine can "neutralize" the new variant.
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