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Initial data on Omicron 'doesn't indicate it is more severe', WHO's Dr Mike Ryan says

Pfizer said today its vaccine is “still effective” against the Omicron variant after three doses.

File image of Dr Mike Ryan from the World Health Organization.
File image of Dr Mike Ryan from the World Health Organization.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated Dec 8th 2021, 12:43 PM

THE OMICRON COVID-19 variant appears to be no worse than other coronavirus strains based on preliminary data, top scientists including Dr Mike Ryan from the WHO have said, while cautioning that more research is needed to judge its severity.

The hopeful assessments came as global concern grew over the variant, which has led to dozens of countries re-imposing border restrictions and Covid-19 measures.

While it is likely more transmissible than previous variants, Omicron is also “highly unlikely” to completely evade vaccine protections, the World Health Organization’s emergencies director Dr Mike Ryan told AFP.

“The preliminary data doesn’t indicate that this is more severe. In fact, if anything, the direction is towards less severity,” Dr Ryan said in an interview, insisting though that more research was needed.

Ryan also said there was no sign that Omicron could fully sidestep protections provided by existing Covid vaccines.

“We have highly effective vaccines that have proved effective against all the variants so far, in terms of severe disease and hospitalisation… There’s no reason to expect that it wouldn’t be so” for Omicron, he added, pointing to initial data from South Africa, where the strain was first reported.

However, Ryan acknowledged that it was possible that existing vaccines might prove less effective against Omicron, which counts more than 30 mutations on the spike protein that dots the surface of the coronavirus and allows it to invade cells.

Dr Fauci

Top US scientist Dr Anthony Fauci echoed the WHO’s view, saying Omicron did not appear worse than prior strains based on early indications – and was possibly milder.

The new variant is “clearly highly transmissible,” very likely more so than Delta, the current dominant global strain, Fauci told AFP.

“It almost certainly is not more severe than Delta,” he added. “There is some suggestion that it might even be less severe.”

But he noted it was important to not over-interpret this data because the populations being followed skewed young and were less likely to become hospitalised. Severe disease can also take weeks to develop.

“Then as we get more infections throughout the rest of the world, it might take longer to see what’s the level of severity.”

Pfizer jab

The coronavirus vaccine developed jointly by BioNTech and Pfizer is “still effective” against the Omicron variant of the virus after three doses, the companies said in a statement today.

A laboratory study by its makers found the vaccine “is still effective in preventing Covid-19, also against Omicron, if it has been administered three times”, but warned that “the Omicron variant is probably not sufficiently neutralised after two doses”.

According to the study “a third dose provides a similar level of neutralising antibodies to Omicron as is observed after two doses” for other variants.

Pfizer and BioNTech also said that an Omicron-specific version of the anti-coronavirus vaccine, currently in development by BioNTech, would be available by March.

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“Although two doses of the vaccine may still offer protection against severe disease caused by the Omicron strain, it’s clear from these preliminary data that protection is improved with a third dose of our vaccine,” Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla said in a statement.

Global concern

The detection of the first Omicron cases last month coincided with surges in infection numbers across the world, and the variant added fuel to concerns about a global Covid resurgence.

As European Union health ministers met yesterday to find ways to coordinate their response, Norway announced it will tighten restrictions to combat its surge.

It followed a suspected outbreak of Omicron last week among dozens of partygoers who had all been vaccinated led to new restrictions in and around the capital Oslo.

Neighbouring Sweden also said yesterday it would launch a series of anti-Covid measures.

Elsewhere in Europe, Poland said from December 15, it will restrict the number of people allowed in churches, restaurants and theatres, and make vaccination compulsory for healthcare workers, teachers and the military from March 1.

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