Health

WHO sees more evidence that omicron causes milder symptoms

“We are
seeing more and more studies pointing out that omicron is infecting the upper
part of the body. Unlike other ones, the lungs who would be causing severe
pneumonia,” WHO Incident Manager Abdi Mahamud told Geneva-based
journalists.

“It can
be a good news, but we really require more studies to prove that.”

Since the
heavily mutated variant was first detected in November, WHO data shows it has
spread quickly and emerged in at least 128 countries, presenting dilemmas for
many nations and people seeking to reboot their economies and lives after
nearly two years of COVID-related disruptions.

However,
while case numbers have surged to all-time records, the hospitalisation and
death rates are often lower than at other phases in the pandemic.

“What
we are seeing now is….the decoupling between the cases and the deaths,”
he said.

His remarks
on the reduced risks of severe disease chime with other data, including a study
from South Africa, which was one of the first countries where omicron was
detected.

However,
Mahamud also sounded a note of caution, calling South Africa an
“outlier” since it has a young population, among other factors.

And he
warned that omicron’s high transmissibility meant it would become dominant
within weeks in many places, posing a threat to medical systems in countries
where a high proportion of the population remains unvaccinated.

VACCINATION,
NOT VACCINES, ARE THE CHALLENGE

While omicron
seemed to be slipping past antibodies, evidence was emerging that COVID-19
vaccines still provided some protection, by eliciting a second pillar of the
immune response from T-cells, Mahamud said.

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“Our
prediction is protection against severe hospitalisation and death (from
Omicron) will be maintained,” he said, saying this also applied to
vaccines developed by Sinopharm and Sinovac that are used in China, where
Omicron cases remain very low.

“The
challenge has not been the vaccine but the vaccination and reaching those
vulnerable populations.”

Asked about
whether an omicron-specific vaccine was needed, Mahamud said it was too early
to say but voiced doubts and stressed that the decision required global
coordination and should not be left to manufacturers to decide alone.

“You
may go ahead with omicron and put all your eggs in that basket and a new
variant that is more transmissible or more immune-evasive may appear,” he
said, adding that a WHO technical group had held recent meetings on vaccine
composition.

The best way
to reduce the impact of the variant would be to meet the WHO’s goal of
vaccinating 70% of the population in each country by July, rather than offer
third and fourth doses in some countries, he said.

As case
numbers due to omicron have soared, some countries, including the United
States, have cut down isolation or quarantine periods in a bid to allow
asymptomatic people to return to work or school.

Mahamud said
that leaders should decide based on the strength of the local epidemic, saying
Western countries with very high case numbers might consider trimming isolation
periods to keep basic services functioning.

However,
places that have largely shut it out would do better to maintain the full
14-day quarantine period.

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“If
your numbers are very small, you better be invested in keeping that number
very, very low.”

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