By Ciara Linnane
The World Health Organization called for a calm, measured approach to the new variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 on Tuesday, cautioning against restrictions on travel that might lead to a weakening of surveillance and tracking.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a briefing at the agency’s World Health Assembly that the global response to the variant dubbed omicron that was classified last Friday as a “variant of concern” must be “calm, coordinated and coherent.”
The variant, which was reported last week by scientists in South Africa, has more mutations than any of the earlier variants, and testing must now be conducted to determine whether is it more transmissible, more lethal, or more resistant to existing vaccines and treatments. News of its detection was immediately greeted with travel bans on flights from South Africa and neighboring countries by the U.S., the U.K. and other countries as well as the European Union.
“I thank Botswana and South Africa for detecting, sequencing and reporting this variant so rapidly,” Tedros said, who said it was “deeply concerning to me that those countries are now being penalized by others for doing the right thing.”
Tedros also acknowledged that for now there are more questions than answers about omicron and urged patience. He also highlighted the reality that many wealthier countries hogged initial supplies of vaccine, leaving Africa and other places particularly vulnerable to new variants.
In related news, Dutch health authorities said Tuesday that omicron was already in the Netherlands when South Africa alerted the WHO about it last week, as the Associated Press reported.
The Netherlands’ RIVM health institute reportedly has found omicron in samples dating from Nov. 19 and 23. The WHO said South Africa first reported the variant to the U.N. healthy agency on Nov. 24.
Authorities in the eastern German city of Leipzig said they had confirmed an infection with the omicron variant in a 39-year-old man who had neither been abroad nor had contact with anyone who had been, the AP reported, citing the news agency dpa. Leipzig is in the eastern state of Saxony, which currently has Germany’s highest overall coronavirus infection rate.
Japan and France announced their first cases of the new variant on Tuesday.
The variant has now been detected in more than a dozen countries. Despite the global worry, doctors in South Africa thus far are reporting patients are suffering mostly mild symptoms. But they warn that it is early and most of the new cases are in people in their 20s and 30s, who generally have not gotten as sick from COVID-19 as older patients.
Moderna /zigman2/quotes/205619834/composite MRNA -1.76% CEO Stéphane Bancel told the Financial Times there’s no world where current vaccines are as effective as they have been against the delta variant. And he suggested the drop-off could be significant.
“I think it’s going to be a material drop. I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to … are like, ‘This is not going to be good.’ ”
Moderna had previously announced that data on the ability of its vaccine to neutralize the omicron variant would be expected within weeks as it works to rapidly advance a booster candidate directly targeting the variant.
In other medical news, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. ‘s /zigman2/quotes/203149337/composite REGN +4.25% president and chief medical officer, George Yancopoulos, told the Wall Street Journal that his company’s antibody treatment loses effectiveness against omicron based on early tests. The full impact will only be known in the coming weeks after further testing, he said.