GENEVA, Switzerland – The World Health Organization (WHO) published on Sunday an update on the science regarding the new coronavirus variant Omicron which is causing global concern and sparking increasing flight bans on Southern African countries.
The experts of the UN health agency said researchers in South Africa and around the world are currently conducting studies to better understand the aspects of Omicron, but as of right now, it is not clear whether it is more transmissible compared to other variants, including Delta.
“The number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant, but epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors”, WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) explained in a statement.
The Group also highlighted that it is not clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants.
“While preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of a specific infection with Omicron”, the experts said.
They added that currently there is no information to suggest that Omicron causes different COVID-19 symptoms.
Higher risk of reinfection
However, the TAG-VE reaffirmed that preliminary evidence indicates that people who have previously had COVID-19 could become reinfected more easily with Omicron when compared to other variants of concern.
So far, the initially reported infections have been among younger individuals who tend to have more mild disease, “but understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant will take days to several weeks”, the experts said.
The group emphasised that is working with partners to understand the potential impact of this variant on vaccines, the effectiveness of current PCR tests, and existing treatments, but more information is still needed.
Keep the borders open and follow science
As a growing number of countries have imposed flight bans on southern African nations due to concerns over the Omicron variant, the UN health agency urged them to follow evidence and International Health Regulations calling for ‘borders to remain open’.
While travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19, ‘they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods’, the agency said in a statement published on Sunday.
“If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive and should be scientifically based, according to the International Health Regulations which is a legally binding instrument of international law recognized by over 190 nations”, WHO highlighted.
While investigations continue into the Omicron variant, the UN agency recommends countries to take a risk-based and scientific approach and put in place measures that can limit its possible spread.
“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity. COVID-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
Flight bans have been imposed on southern African countries, but so far only two have detected the new variant. Meanwhile, countries in other regions such as Europe have reported cases of Omicron.