With seven countries in the South-East Asia Region confirming cases of new COVID-19 variant Omicron, the World Health Organization on Saturday stressed on urgent scale-up of public health and social measures to curtail its further spread.
Countries can and must prevent the spread of Omicron with proven health and social measures, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia Region, Poonam Khetrapal Singh said.
"Our focus must continue to be to protect the least protected and those at high risk," she said in a statement.
The overall threat posed by Omicron largely depends on three key questions -- its transmissibility; how well the vaccines and prior SARS-CoV-2 infection protect against it, and how virulent the variant is as compared to other variants.
"From what we know so far, Omicron appears to spread faster than the Delta variant which has been attributed to the surge in cases across the world in the last several months," Singh said.
Emerging data from South Africa suggests increased risk of re-infection with Omicron, she said, adding that there is still limited data on the clinical severity associated with Omicron.
Further information is needed to fully understand the clinical picture of those infected with Omicron, she said.
"We expect more information in the coming weeks. Omicron should not be dismissed as mild," Singh said, adding that even if it does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm health systems.
Hence, health care capacity including ICU beds, oxygen availability, adequate health care staff and surge capacity need to be reviewed and strengthened at all levels, she stressed.
"We must continue to do it all. Protect yourself and protect each other. Get vaccinated, wear a mask, keep a distance, open windows, clean your hands and cough and sneeze safely. Continue to take all precautions even after taking vaccine doses," Singh said.
On the impact of the new variant on vaccines, she said preliminary data suggests that vaccines may likely have reduced effectiveness against infections by the Omicron variant.
However, studies are underway to better understand the extent to which Omicron may evade vaccine and/or infection derived immunity and the extent to which current vaccines continue to protect against severe disease and death associated with Omicron, she said.
Globally, the pandemic is driven by the Delta variant, against which vaccines continue to provide a robust level of protection from severe disease, hospitalisation, and death. Hence, efforts to scale-up vaccination coverage must continue, the WHO official said.
"Vaccines are an important tool in our fight against the pandemic, but, as we know, vaccines alone will not get any country out of this pandemic. We must scale up vaccination and at the same time implement public health and social measures, which have proven critical to limiting transmission of COVID-19 and reducing deaths," Singh said.
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