WHO: Too early to conclude omicron less severe than previous strains

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A top World Health Organization official on Monday said that it was still too early to say if the COVID-19 omicron variant is milder than other strains.

“It is probably unwise to sit back and think ‘this is a mild variant, it’s not going to cause severe disease,’ because I think with the numbers going up all health systems are going to be under strain,” chief WHO scientist Soumya Swaminathan said, according to Reuters.

According to Swaminathan, the idea that omicron is less severe appears to be based on early data coming out of parts of South Africa. This data may be misleading due to preexisting immunity already in the communities.

Swaminathan’s assessment echoed what other health experts have said about the omicron variant, including former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb.

“A lot of people believe, including myself, that the reason why it’s manifesting as a less severe illness is probably because we have baseline immunity in the population,” Gottlieb said while appearing on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “Probably around 80 percent of Americans and 90 percent of South Africans have some level of immunity, either from prior infection or through vaccination.”

Though it is still left to be seen whether omicron truly causes less severe illness than other strains, numerous health authorities have warned that the virus does appear to spread at a faster rate than previous variants. Omicron’s swift spread across the globe has caused some governments to reintroduce COVID-19 mitigation measures.

WHO’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday recommended putting off or canceling holiday-related events.

“There is now consistent evidence that Omicron is spreading significantly faster than the Delta variant,” Tedros said. “And it is more likely people vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 could be infected or re-infected.” 

Tags COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa Ghebreyesus omicron SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant Soumya Swaminathan Tedros Adhanom Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus World Health Organization
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