People underestimate the coronavirus at their peril, health officials have warned, fearing the Omicron variant may be viewed by some as “mild.”
Data from South Africa is only in its early stages and countries must act now in the face of a potential “big wave of cases” of the faster-spreading mutation, said Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organization (WHO).
His warning was echoed by the organization’s chief executive, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said efforts should be made to prick the unvaccinated as well as to continue measures such as wearing masks and washing clothes. hands.
It came after Dr Angelique Coetzee, president of the South African Medical Association, told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee that she agreed with a new study by South African Medical. Research Council suggesting that Omicron may be 29% less severe than the first wave of infection. who swept the country.
She said “we don’t have all the answers,” but the clinical picture so far is that people mainly suffer from mild Omicron disease.
But the WHO has warned against relying too much on early data.
Dr Tedros said during a press briefing: “We are concerned that people view Omicron as being gentle.
“Surely we have learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril.
“Even if Omicron causes less severe disease, the large number of cases could again overwhelm unprepared health systems. “
Dr Ryan said that while scientific monitoring of the variant is ongoing, “we have to be prepared for what is likely to happen, which is a big wave of cases, which may or not be more or less serious but which themselves generate pressure on the health system ”.
The executive director of the WHO health emergency program has warned that “health systems are weaker now than they were a year ago, in reality” as multiple waves of Covid- 19 swept across countries.
He added: “Unfortunately, sometimes you can get up after the first punch, but it’s very difficult to get up after the second and third, and that’s the difficulty.”
He said WHO leaders will be “the happiest people in the world” to be able to say in two or three weeks that “this is a much milder disease, so good.”
But he cautioned against assumptions, as he put it: “This is not how this virus has behaved so far, this is not our experience through the three waves of this. pandemic.
“So I think the idea is to act now in the real world while we collect the data to understand exactly what this virus is capable of.”
No one offered a booster should feel guilty for accepting their third dose, said Dr Ryan, when asked about accelerating his UK rollout.
He said countries can protect their own citizens while helping tackle global vaccine inequalities.
He said: “There are governments, like the UK, that are doing their best to manage the priorities of their own people and are very supportive of international efforts to create equity in the distribution of vaccines. “
Dr Tedros said the priority must remain “to immunize the unvaccinated, even in countries with better access to vaccines,” and that vaccines must be combined with other health measures.
Countries can “remove heat from transmission by doing simple things” like avoiding crowded spaces and ensuring good ventilation, Dr Ryan said.