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WHO chief urges ‘rational’ measures against Omicron

30 Nov 2021 WHO chief urges ‘rational’ measures against Omicron By AFP

Geneva – The World Health Organization (WHO) called on Tuesday for countries to keep calm and take ‘rational’ measures in response to the new, fast-spreading COVID-19 variant Omicron, which has sparked global panic.

“We call on all member states to take rational, proportional risk-reduction measures,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a briefing to countries.

“The global response must be calm, coordinated and coherent.”

First reported to the WHO in southern Africa less than a week ago, the new strain has rapidly spread across continents, with dozens of countries announcing travel restrictions.

The UN health agency has cautioned against such restrictions, fearing that blocking travel from countries where new variants are first spotted could be unfair and dissuade surveillance. 

“I thank Botswana and South Africa for detecting, sequencing and reporting this variant so rapidly,” Ghebreyesus said, adding that it was ‘deeply concerning to me that those countries are now being penalised by others for doing the right thing’.

Scientists in South Africa said they had detected the new variant with at least ten mutations, and WHO has cautioned that it poses a ‘very high’ risk globally.

At the same time, Ghebreyesus stressed that it remains unclear how dangerous the variant is. “We still have more questions than answers about the effect of Omicron on transmission, severity of disease, and the effectiveness of tests, therapeutics and vaccines,” he said.

The WHO chief said it was understandable that countries wanted to protect their citizens ‘against a variant that we don’t yet fully understand’.

“But I am equally concerned that several member states are introducing blunt, blanket measures that are not evidence-based or effective on their own, and which will only worsen inequities.”

Ghebreyesus also highlighted the glaring vaccine inequity that has seen abundant supplies in wealthy countries, which are rolling out booster shots, as even many of the most vulnerable in poorer nations are still waiting for their first jabs.

Health experts have long warned that allowing COVID to spread unabated in some places dramatically increases the chances that new, more dangerous variants could emerge, placing the entire world at risk.

“The longer we allow the pandemic to drag on, by failing to address vaccine inequity, or to implement public health and social measures in a tailored and consistent way, the more opportunity we give this virus to mutate in ways we cannot predict or prevent,” Ghebreyesus said.

Vaccine could get nod in four months

Vaccines specially adapted for the new Omicron coronavirus variant could be approved in three to four months if they are needed, the head of the EU’s drug regulator said on Tuesday.

The decision on whether new shots are required would, however, have to be made by other bodies, European Medicines Agency executive director Emer Cooke said.

“Were there a need to change the existing vaccines, we could be in a position to have those approved within three to four months,” Cooke told a European Parliament committee.

“That’s from the start of the time when they would start to change.”

Cooke said EU regulators ‘don’t know’ yet whether the current vaccines remain effective against Omicron – which she said would take about two weeks to find out – or whether new ones are needed.

“A decision needs to be made first whether that’s necessary, and that’s not a decision for the European Medicines Agency.”

The agency has so far approved four vaccines for use for adults in the EU: Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

A decision on a fifth, by US firm Novavax, is expected ‘within a matter of weeks’, Cooke said.

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