The World Health Organization said that the Omicron version of the coronavirus could change the course of the pandemic. It called on countries to vaccinate as soon as possible and take measures to protect people from infection.
“We can prevent Omicron from becoming a global crisis,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a briefing on Wednesday. “This virus is changing, but our collective resolve should not be.”
The organization also said that while there is early evidence that Omicron is milder than the delta strain, it is too early to be certain.
“Some of the characteristics of Omicron, including its global spread and large number of mutations, suggest that it could have a major impact during a pandemic,” Tedros said.
Asked about a new study by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE to see how their vaccine works against Omicron, Kate O’Brien, director of vaccinations and vaccines, said the WHO is aware and will look into the findings.
“We are still in a delta pandemic, so vaccination with existing vaccines is a top priority,” she said.
Earlier on Wednesday, Pfizer and BioNTech said that preliminary laboratory studies suggest a third dose of their vaccine may be needed to neutralize the Omicron variant, an analysis that would accelerate booster-shot drives around the world. .
WHO is pushing countries to freeze boosters to make more vaccines available to poorer countries, where vaccination rates are low. But governments may be less likely to do so if evidence from trials continues to show that a third shot is needed to protect against Omicron.
The variant has now spread to 57 countries, and appears to be more transmissible than previous virus strains. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s emergencies programme, said that while Omicron has a higher transmission capacity than Delta, “it doesn’t mean the virus is invincible.”