New Delhi [India]: Amid concerns arising out of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia Region on Thursday said that Omicron appears to be spreading faster than any other previous variant and added that one should not dismiss it as "mild".
In an exclusive interview with ANI, Dr Singh responded on how virulent Omicron is and what are the new major symptoms of this variant.
"The overall threat posed by Omicron largely depends on three key questions: (1) how transmissible the variant is; (2) how well vaccines and prior SARS-CoV-2 infection protect against infection, transmission, clinical disease and death; and (3) how virulent the variant is as compared to other variants," she said.
"Based on the current limited evidence, Omicron appears to be spreading faster at a rate not seen with any other previous variant. Emerging data from South Africa suggest an increased risk of re-infection with Omicron, but more data are needed to draw firmer conclusions. There is still limited data on the clinical severity associated with Omicron. More information on case severity associated with Omicron is expected in the coming weeks." Asserting Omicron should not be dismissed as wild, the WHO Regional Director said more information is needed to fully understand the clinical picture of those infected with Omicron variant.
"Further information is needed to fully understand the clinical picture of those infected with Omicron and WHO encourages countries to contribute to the collection and sharing of hospitalized patient data through the WHO COVID-19 Clinical Data Platform. We should not dismiss Omicron as mild. Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm health systems," she said.
When asked if anti-COVID vaccines are effective against Omicron, Dr Singh said that preliminary data suggest that "vaccines may have reduced effectiveness against Omicron".
"Again, it will take a few more weeks before there is enough evidence to fully assess the vaccines' performance against Omicron. We should also not forget that vaccines alone will not get any country out of this pandemic... Countries can - and must - prevent the spread of Omicron with proven public health and social measures. 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." Singh emphasised the emergence of variants is a reminder that the pandemic is far from over.
"The risk of COVID-19 remains high globally and the emergence of variants is a reminder that the pandemic is far from over. Like I said earlier, we must continue to strengthen surveillance, public health and social measures and rapidly scale up vaccination coverage. As in the past, whenever we have done these well, we have seen a decline in cases. We know that these measures work. It's up to each one of us, and all of us to together, to stop transmission, which we can and we must," she told ANI when asked whether India will face the third wave of COVID-19.
Commenting on booster doses' effectiveness against Omicron, the WHO official said that current data show that the performance of vaccines that received WHO's Emergency Use Listing holds up well against severe forms of the disease with minor or modest reductions in effectiveness by 6 months after the last primary dose.
"Preliminary studies on the impact of Omicron on vaccine effectiveness, and whether additional doses may be necessary suggest that an additional dose may confer benefit, yet it is too early to draw definitive conclusions from these limited labs and clinical studies. WHO will continue to review the evidence, and update its recommendations as appropriate." "SAGE has recommended moderately and severely immunocompromised persons may be offered an additional dose of COVID-19 vaccine as part of an extended primary series. To make a recommendation on the use of booster doses for the general population more data is needed on vaccine performance of the primary series over time. We must also review the benefits from boosting versus the benefits from expanding the coverage of primary vaccination, in different population groups." She further said that the booster policy has to be considered in the context of the goal of preventing severe disease and death and protecting the health system. WHO recommendations on boosters will be updated as more evidence becomes available, she added.
Expressing her views on COVID-19 vaccination for children in India, the WHO Regional Director said that countries should consider individual and population benefits of immunizing children and adolescents in their specific epidemiological and social context when developing their COVID-19 immunization policies and programs.
"As children and adolescents tend to have the milder disease compared to adults unless they are in a group at higher risk of severe COVID-19, it is less urgent to vaccinate them than older people, those with chronic health conditions and health workers. There are benefits of vaccinating children and adolescents that go beyond the direct health benefits. Vaccination that decreases COVID-19 transmission in this age group may reduce transmission from children and adolescents to older adults."
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