WHO says omicron is spreading at a rate not seen with any other Covid variant

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a news conference after a ceremony for the opening of the WHO Academy, in Lyon, France, September 27, 2021.

Denis Balibouse | Reuters

The World Health Organization on Tuesday warned the new omicron Covid-19 variant is spreading faster than any previous strain, and it is probably present in every country of the world.

“Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a Covid update in Geneva. “Seventy-seven countries have now reported cases of omicron. And the reality is that omicron is probably in most countries, even if it hasn’t been detected yet.”

Tedros said the WHO is worried that countries are dismissing omicron as a mild variant. Though omicron is more contagious, it is not yet clear whether the variant causes more mild or severe disease than past strains of the virus.

“We have learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril,” Tedros said. “Even if omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems,” he said.

Tedros warned that vaccines alone will not protect the nations of the world from omicron, emphasizing the importance of masks and social distancing.

“It’s not vaccines instead of masks. It’s not vaccines instead of distancing. It’s not vaccines instead of ventilation or hand hygiene. Do it all. Do it consistently. Do it well,” Tedros said.

The variant significantly reduces the protection against infection provided Pfizer and BioNTech’s two-dose vaccine, according to preliminary lab data released by the companies last week. Scientists at the University of Oxford published a study on Monday that also found the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines are less effective against omicron.

However, the two-dose vaccines likely still protect against severe disease. Pfizer and BioNTech found that a booster shot provides significant levels of protection against omicron infection.

This is breaking news. Please check for updates.

CNBC Health & Science

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