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Omicron poses very high global risk, world must prepare -WHO

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By Reuters

<div> <p>By Stephanie Nebehay</p> <p><span class="caps">GENEVA</span> -The heavily mutated Omicron coronavirus variant is likely to spread internationally and poses a very high risk of infection surges that could have “severe consequences” in some places, the World Health Organization (<span class="caps">WHO</span>) said on Monday.</p> <p>No Omicron-linked deaths had yet been reported, though further research was needed to assess its potential to escape protection against immunity induced by vaccines and previous infections, it added.</p> <p>In anticipation of increased case numbers as the variant, first reported last week, spreads, the U.N. agency urged its 194 member states to accelerate vaccination of high-priority groups and ensure plans were in place to maintain health services.</p> <p>“Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,” the <span class="caps">WHO</span> said. </p> <p>“The overall global risk related to the new variant …is assessed as very high.”</p> <p>Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, <span class="caps">WHO</span> director-general, sounded the alarm at the start of an assembly of health ministers that is expected to launch negotiations on an international agreement on preventing future pandemics.</p> <p>“The emergence of the highly mutated Omicron variant underlines just how perilous and precarious our situation is,” Tedros said. “Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics: our current system disincentivizes countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores.”</p> <p>The new global deal, expected by May 2024, would cover issues such as sharing of data and genome sequences of emerging viruses, and of any potential vaccines derived from research.</p> <p>‘<span class="caps">OVERWHELMING</span> <span class="caps">DEMANDS</span>’</p> <p>Omicron was first reported on Nov. 24 from South Africa, where infections have risen steeply.</p> <p>It has since spread to more than a dozen countries, many of which have imposed travel restrictions to try to seal themselves off. Japan on Monday joined Israel in saying it would close its borders to foreigners.</p> <p>The <span class="caps">WHO</span> reiterated that, pending further advice, countries should use a “risk-based approach to adjust international travel measures in a timely manner”, while acknowledging that a rise in coronavirus cases might lead to higher morbidity and mortality rates. </p> <p>“The impact on vulnerable populations would be substantial, particularly in countries with low vaccination coverage,” it added.</p> <p>In vaccinated persons, meanwhile, “<span class="caps">COVID</span>-19 cases and infections are expected … albeit in a small and predictable proportion”. </p> <p>Overall, there were “considerable uncertainties in the magnitude of immune escape potential of Omicron”, and more data was expected in coming weeks. </p> </div>