The World Health Organization on Friday said the Covid omicron variant was found in 38 countries, from 23 days ago, with preliminary data suggesting that the species is more contagious than delta but seems less fatal.
“We are seeing a growth rate, we are seeing an increase in omicron numbers,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s chief technology officer for Covid-19, during a Q&A broadcast live on the group’s social media platforms on Friday. “But we have omicron reports in 38 countries in all six WHO regions.”
“There is a suggestion that there is a growing infection, which we need to understand whether it is more or less contagious compared to the delta,” Van Kerkhove said, noting that delta differences still dominate the world.
Drs. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s emergency program, stated that “it is clear that the virus seems to be spreading successfully.”
“And we have seen that before with the delta. So again, there are some things we should be surprised about, ”says Ryan.
Omicron has about 30 mutations in spike protein, which is the process used to assemble human cells. Some of these changes are associated with higher infection and the ability to flee the immune system, according to the WHO.
South African scientists have this week found that omicron is associated with a “greater potential” for re-infecting people who already have Covid, compared to previous strains of the virus. The study, published by the South African Center for Epidemiological Modeling and Analysis and the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, has not been reviewed by peers.
Van Kerkhove said it was too early to understand the severity of the omicron-induced disease. The first reports of mild symptoms in some of the first cases identified were based on a group of university students who tend to be younger and receive symptoms much softer than adults, he said.
“There have been initial reports that it tended to be mild, but it is very close,” Van Kerkhove said. “Everyone infected with SARS-CoV-2, regardless of the type, will always start with the flu. And then maybe it will stop there gently, some people have asymptomatic yes, but it can stop with a mild illness or it may take some time. ”
Van Kerkove said hospital admissions were on the rise in South Africa, but public health officials were not aware of the increasing risk of death, but were still awaiting further details.
Ryan said public health officials first noticed mild cases with a variety of alpha and delta. It can take up to two weeks to see an increase in omicron-related death if the exception, in fact, causes a more serious disease.
“Unfortunately it takes time,” says Ryan. “We have seen that in the past waves of this epidemic. If the rate rises, it may take a week or two for it to be hospitalized and even to die. ”
Van Kerkhove has warned that there is a reporting bias at the moment that could hide how dangerous the alternative is. Most people around the world who have been tested for omicron were healthy travelers, which may explain why the symptoms reported so far are mild.
“When you walk, you are not sick or you should not walk when you are sick,” Van Kerkhove said. “So there is a bias about what is being found right now, but that will change over time.”
The first person in the U.S. who was found with an omicron was a completely vaccinated traveler between the ages of 18 and 49 from South Africa to the San Francisco area.
Van Kerkhove called on nations around the world to expand the Covid-19 gene sequence to find new alternatives and share the results publicly to better understand the emergence of the virus.
“Now is the time to strengthen the plans,” he said. “You’ve heard us say that for a long time now, but it’s not too late to do this – the systems need to be strengthened.”
Van Kerkhove noted that South Africa was the first country to report an omicron to the WHO, but the timeline could change as many countries tracked the backlog of Covid sufferers since November.
“So some of the first cases of this diversity may not exist in South Africa,” he said.
Van Kerkhove and Ryan state that current vaccines are still the most effective way to reduce the spread of the virus. Ryan said there is a “clear relationship” between policy inequality and the development of diversity around the world. The WHO has also criticized rich countries for not doing enough to get vaccines from people in poorer countries.
Pfizer and Moderna said it would take about two weeks to find out how the omicron affects current trends as researchers collect data.
“At the moment we don’t need to change the terms we use right now,” Ryan said. “There is no evidence to support that claim. There is no evidence of change, but there is still a lot of work to be done on how, if we change, how we can change those vaccines and that the work should be done early. ”