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WHO experts expect details of Omicron transmission ‘within days’

Rising infection rates have seen governments reintroduce certain measures to try to stop the spread of Omicron.

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove of the WHO
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove of the WHO
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated Dec 1st 2021, 7:50 PM

MORE WILL BE known about the transmissibility of the Omicron variant “within days”, global health leaders have said.

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, Covid-19 technical lead at the World Health Organization (WHO), said it is still “very early days” in terms of understanding the new variant, but said information is coming in daily.

The Omicron variant has been reported in 23 countries, according to the WHO.

Speaking at a press briefing, Dr Van Kerkhove said: “We don’t have all the information yet on transmission in terms of if there is a fitness advantage, if it’s more transmissible. There is some suggestion of that, but again it’s early days.”

“We expect to have more information on transmission within days, not necessarily weeks, but in days.”

She said they have seen reports of Omicron cases which “go from mild disease all the way to severe disease”, but said it is still early days.

“It is certainly possible that one of the scenarios is that the virus, as it continues to evolve, may still have a fitness advantage, meaning that it can become more transmissible, more transmissible than Delta, we’ll have to see.

“But we don’t know quite yet about the severity.”

There is still a lot of uncertainty around Omicron, and this data will come in and there are scientists around the world that are studying this. But there’s no indication to suggest that the vaccines won’t work. Even if there is a reduction in efficacy, it’s still better to have the vaccine because it will save your life.

The EU’s top official has said it is time to “think about mandatory vaccination” as the fast-spreading Omicron variant prompts countries to tighten or reintroduce restrictions.

Rising infection rates have already seen European governments reintroduce mandatory mask-wearing, social-distancing measures, curfews or lockdowns in a desperate attempt to limit hospitalisations, but leaving businesses fearing another grim Christmas.

In Brussels, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it was “understandable and appropriate” to discuss how to “encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination” in the bloc.

However, only individual member states can impose vaccine mandates.

“My personal position is… I think it is understandable and appropriate to lead this discussion now,” she told a media conference, underlining that a third of the EU population of 450 million was still unvaccinated.

“How we can encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination within the European Union? This needs discussion. This needs a common approach. But it is a discussion that I think has to be led,” she said.

She noted that “if you look at the numbers we have now, 77 percent of the adults in the European Union vaccinated, or if you take the whole population, it’s 66 percent — and this means one-third of the European population is not vaccinated, these are 150 million people”. 

United States

The United States will soon require international travelers entering the country to take a Covid test one day prior to departure, regardless of vaccination status.

A spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the measure would be announced once the rule is finalised.

Currently, vaccinated travelers to the US require a test three days prior to departure. Unvaccinated Americans or permanent residents need a test within one day, while unvaccinated non-citizens may not enter by air, with few exceptions.

The agency is also evaluating “considerations around additional post-arrival testing and self-quarantines,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a briefing Tuesday.

More controversially, they are also debating a proposal to oblige travelers, including US citizens, to self-quarantine for seven days even if their test results are negative.

International response

Ignoring a WHO warning against blanket travel bans, Japan suspended new flight bookings into the country as the OECD warned that Omicron threatens economic recovery and lowered the growth forecast for 2021.

Austria has already said it will make Covid-19 jabs compulsory next February. Germany is mulling following suit and Greece on has said it will mandate vaccines for over-60s.

While it could take weeks to prove how infectious and resistant to current vaccines Omicron is, many countries have rushed to ramp up exisitng programmes, seeing them as the best line of defence.

From Wednesday, every adult in Italy became eligible for a Covid booster shot, previously only open to those aged over 40.

Non-EU members Britain and Norway had already promised booster shots to all adults before the end of January and Easter respectively.

Case count

So far, more than a dozen countries and territories have detected Omicron cases, including Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Israel, Italy, Nigeria and Portugal. Dozens of countries have imposed travel restrictions mostly targeting southern African nations.

Japanese authorities, which had already tightened its tough border measures, on Wednesday said they had detected a second infection of the new strain — this time in a person arriving from Peru.

Other governments in Asia also expanded curbs, with Indonesia adding Hong Kong and Malaysia listing Malawi on their travel ban lists.

“A lot of my neighbors and friends died of Covid-19,” said Jakarta resident Jan Pieter Tobing. “Coronavirus is the real deal. So the emergence of Omicron is very terrifying. Honestly, it’s scary.”

France bucked the trend by announcing flights from southern Africa could land on its territory from Saturday, but only allowing French and EU residents, diplomats and flight crews to disembark.

Latin America reported its first two cases of the variant Tuesday — in people who travelled from South Africa to Brazil.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, also reported its first Omicron cases on Wednesday.

US travel bans on eight southern African nations came into effect on Monday. US President Joe Biden said it “kind of depends” how long the measure would stay in place.

“We’re going to learn a lot more in the next couple weeks about the lethality of this virus, about how much it spreads, what we have to control it, etcetera,” he told reporters.

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While the European summer of fleeting Covid freedoms may be over, in the southern hemisphere, Pacific nation Fiji ended 615 days of international isolation today and reopened to tourists.

Traditional dancers in grass skirts welcomed waving holidaymakers from Sydney, the first of an expected flood of desperately needed tourists in the coming weeks.

Fiji Airways chief executive Andre Viljoen said it was a “momentous” occasion for the country, where tourism accounts for about 40 percent of the economy.

Looking ahead

Even as governments acted unilaterally in imposing travel restrictions, WHO member states came together in Geneva to work on an international accord on handling the next pandemic.

An intergovernmental negotiating body will be established to reach an agreement on responding to future pandemics with a first meeting due before 1 March 2022.

© AFP 2021

With reporting by PA

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