The world is on high alert because of the new Omicron Covid strain – but Delta is still responsible for most of the current infections worldwide, the World Health Organization pointed out on Monday.
“Over 99% of cases around the world are due to the Delta variant, and the unvaccinated population has more deaths,” WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan told CNBC’s Squawk Box Asia on Monday. “I think this is our priority while we wait to find out more [the omicron] Variant.”
Last week, the global health authority recognized the variant of Omicron, which was first identified as line B.1.1.529, as a variant of concern. That means it could be more contagious, virulent, or adept at bypassing public health measures, vaccines, and therapeutics. The strain was first identified by South African scientists.
Delta, on the other hand, was first discovered in India.
Why are health professionals concerned?
Health professionals are concerned about the portability of the Omicron variant given its unusual set of mutations and profiles that differ from previous worrying variants.
It is really important that anyone who has not yet been vaccinated or has only received one dose receives a full vaccination.
Senior Scientist, World Health Organization
“The profile of the mutations strongly suggests that it will have a transferability advantage and that it could, and possibly even, escape the immune protection you would get from a monoclonal antibody or from convalescent serum after infection, for example.” against some of the vaccine-induced antibodies, “US infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday.
“So it doesn’t have to happen, but it’s a strong indication that we really need to be prepared for it,” added Fauci.
WHO’s Swaminathan told CNBC that scientists need time to conduct experiments and collect data that would help them answer some of the basic questions surrounding the new variant.
“What we want to know is, is this variant more transmissible, even more than Delta? We want to know if there is a different clinical pattern, is it less severe if it causes disease?” She said, adding, “And thirdly, and very importantly, this variant is able to bypass immune responses either after natural infection or after vaccines.”
She also called on countries where the Omicron variant has been detected to release their clinical data and genome sequence data via the WHO platforms for scientists to investigate.
How quickly does the variant spread?
The Omicron variant has now been detected in several locations, including the UK, Israel, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia. Many countries have tightened travel restrictions from southern Africa to curb the spread of the new strain.
Covid vaccine manufacturers Pfizer, BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca said they are investigating and testing the Omicron variant.
WHO’s Swaminathan said for the moment it should be assumed that existing vaccines would provide some, if not complete, protection against the new strain.
“It’s really important that everyone out there who hasn’t been vaccinated or just received one dose gets a full shot,” she said.
“I think we still have a large number of people around the world who did not have their first vaccination and we also know that at the moment the Delta variant is the main cause of the pandemic around the world,” said Swaminathan added.
Information compiled by Our World In Data showed that around 43% of the world’s population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19. But only a small percentage of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose.
The WHO has repeatedly criticized global vaccine injustice as most vaccinations were given in wealthy or middle-income countries, including booster doses.