WHO press conference on Omicron
The press conference has just ended, and there’s a lot to take in. Here’s a handy summary to keep you up to date:
- The WHO expects that data on the transmissibility of Omicron to emerge in the coming days
- There’s promising early evidence that Omicron doesn’t cause severe illness in many people and that it does not reduce vaccine efficacy
- Travel bans and lockdowns should be implemented with caution, since they have major economic and social consequences and aren’t necessarily the most effective restrictions
- The best way to tackle Omicron is to continue with measures targeted at tackling Delta, including mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing
- Boosters are unlikely to be helpful for most people and countries should instead focus on vaccinating the unvaccinated, both nationally and internationally
- The timeline for how and where the Omicron variant emerged is likely to change as countries step up sequencing of cases logged in November
New variants will continue to emerge for as long as the virus remains in circulation, warned Van Kerkhove.
“We need to increase vaccination coverage around the world” she said, urging that countries focus on the most vulnerable.
Countries must take “proven measures” to drive transmission down rather than relying on lockdowns. She worried that travel bans could disincentivise countries from reporting the emergence of new variants.
“We are in the middle of this pandemic,” she warned.
New restrictions for non-EU arrivals in France
France is stepping up its Covid-19 booster vaccination campaign and tightening entry rules for arrivals from outside the European Union in response to the spread of the Omicron variant.
Gabriel Attal also said flights from countries in southern Africa, where the variant was first detected last week, would remain suspended until Friday. From Saturday they would resume, but only for travellers returning to their main residences, he said.
The government hopes eight million people in France will have received a third vaccine injection by the end of Wednesday, and 10 million by the end of this week.
There are about 1,100 vaccination centers in operation and the government plans to open 300 more in coming weeks, he added.
Meanwhile, all non-EU arrivals in mainland France, where the Omicron variant has yet to be detected, will henceforth have to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test regardless of their vaccination status, Attal added.
Ryan said it’s a “luxurious position” for countries to be able to offer a third booster vaccine.
Instead, he said our goal should be to protect those who haven’t received a first vaccine.
“Right now there is no evidence I‘m aware of that suggests boosting the entire population is going to provide any greater protection” against hospitalisation or death.
Swaminathan urged countries to focus on “vaccinating the unvaccinated first” before they think about boosters.
Asked about whether European countries should prepare for a lockdown Christmas, Michael Ryan, WHO executive director, said we need to be patient while we wait to find out more about the Omicron variant.
In the meantime, he encouraged governments in Europe to look at their epidemiological situation, introduce control measures, increase surveillance and testing and ensure and those who are vulnerable or at risk are offered the vaccine and that any concerns of hesitancy are addressed openly.
He urgent governments to work closely with communities rather than blaming them and to apply public health, not political, measures.
“This is not a time for governments to pass the full responsibility of containing the pandemic onto the shoulders of citizens,” he said.
Van Kerkhove said that the timeline for the emergence of Omicron is likely to change as now it’s been classified as a variant of concern, surveillance, testing and sequencing will increase.
She noted that there are a backlog of cases from November which need sequencing, which may mean that understanding of the countries in which the variant emerged, as well as when it first emerged, could change.
Chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said the greatest risk is faced by those over 45 who have co-morbidities. She said there was no evidence so far of reduced vaccine efficacy to Omicron.
Information on the transmissibility of Omicron expected within days
Asked about the profile of the Omicron variant in terms of transmissibility and severity, Van Kerkhove said:
“We don’t have all the information on transmission though there is some suggestion it’s more transmissible”. She said we should expect to have more information in days, not weeks as anticipated earlier, and that the variant could become more transmissible in future.
In terms of severity, she noted there are reports of cases that go from mild to severe disease. There’s some indication some patients are presenting with mild diseases. There’s a surveillance bias now in terms of cases reported.
She added there are increased hospitalisations across South Africa but that could be a result of the increase in overall cases, which translates into more hospitalisations.
Technical lead for Covid-19 Maria Van Kerkhove said the priority should be to “strengthen surveillance and genomic sequencing around the world” to detect the emergence of new variants.
She praised the work of institutions in southern African countries in reporting the Omicron variant so honestly and quickly.
Some modelling suggests travel bans can be helpful at beginning of outbreak to give countries more time to prepare, but they cannot stop outbreaks, according to Jaouad Mahjour, WHO assistant director general.
Tedros said the emergence of the Omicron variant “should not surprise us, this is what viruses do” and that this pattern will continue so long as the virus is allowed to spread.
There’s more to learn on its transmission, severity and the efficacy of tests, he said.
On travel bans, he said: “It’s deeply concerning to me that those countries [that first reported the variant] are now being penalised for doing the right thing.”
He warned: “Blanket travel plans will not prevent the international spread of Pmicron and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihood.”
Instead, he urged that all countries ensure that high risk individuals are fully vaccinated immediately and that all countries fund international efforts to distribute treatments and vaccinations since “globally we have a toxic mix of low vaccine coverage and very low testing”, which will continue to breed variants unless it is addressed.
He said: “We must forget we’re already dealing with a highly transmissible, dangerous variant, the Delta variant, which currently accounts for almost all cases globally. We need to use the tools we already have to prevent transmission and save lives, and in doing that we will prevent transmission and save lives from Omicron.”
World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said a global accord on pandemic preparedness is a sign that world nations have “made a strong statement that health security is too important to be left to change or goodwill”.
He said the “significance of this cannot be understated” as it will strengthen cooperation between countries, similar to an earlier accord on tobacco control.
The agreement will see an intergovernmental negotiating body establish a new accord. The first meeting will be no later than the first of March 2022, and an outcome will be submitted for consideration to the World Health Assembly in 2024.
However he added there are still “differences of opinion” on what the accord should contain.
The World Health Organization is holding an important press conference at 3pm. You can tune in through the video link at the top of the page, and I’ll keep you updated on key lines as they emerge.