The World Health Organization’s (WHO) chief scientist on Friday urged people not to panic over the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant and said it was too early to say if COVID-19 vaccines would have to be modified to fight it.
Speaking in an interview at the Reuters Next conference, Soumya Swaminathan also said it was impossible to predict if Omicron would become the dominant strain.
Omicron has gained a foothold in Asia, Africa, the Americas, the Middle East and Europe and has reached seven of the nine provinces of South Africa, where it was first identified. Many governments have tightened travel rules to keep the variant out.
Swaminathan said that the right response was to be ready.
“How worried should we be? We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we’re in a different situation to a year ago,” she said.
“Delta accounts for 99 percent of infections around the world. This variant would have to be more transmissible to out-compete and become dominant worldwide. It is possible, but it’s not possible to predict.”
Much remains unknown about Omicron, which has been detected in more than two dozen countries as parts of Europe grapple with a wave of infections of the more familiar Delta variant.
“We need to wait, lets hope it’s milder … but it’s too early to conclude about the variant as a whole,” Swaminathan said.
Australia became the latest country to report community transmission of the new variant, a day after it was found in five US states.
WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a United Nations briefing in Geneva earlier that vaccine makers should prepare for the likelihood of adjusting their products.
He also said the organization had not seen any reports of deaths relating to the new Omicron variant.
“I have not seen reports of Omicron-related deaths yet,” Lindmeier told reporters in Geneva.
“We’re collecting all the evidence and we will find much more evidence as we go along,” AFP reported.
Ugur Sahin, CEO of Germany’s BioNTech which makes a COVID vaccine with Pfizer, told the Reuters Next conference the company should be able to adapt the shots relatively quickly.
Sahin also said current vaccines should continue to provide protection against severe disease, despite mutations.
Takeshi Kasai, the WHO’s western Pacific director, told a media briefing that vaccines were the solution and that border controls could only buy time.
“People should not only rely on border measures. What is most important is to prepare for these variants with potential high transmissibility. So far the information available suggests we don’t have to change our approach.”
Kasai urged countries to fully vaccinate vulnerable groups and stick to preventive measures such as mask wearing and social distancing.