WHO: ‘Omicron spreading at rate not seen with previous variants’

People wear face coverings as they walk through Westminster, in London, Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced tighter restrictions to stem the spread of the omicron variant. He is again urging people to work from home and mandating COVID-19 passes to get into nightclubs and large events. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

The World Health Organization has warned Omicron is “spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant”, as it called on the world to use all tools available to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking at a media briefing WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “I need to be very clear: vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis. It’s not vaccines instead of masks, distancing, ventilation or hand hygiene. Do it all. Do it consistently. Do it well.”

He once again highlighted vaccine inequity, with many Western countries racing to roll out vaccine booster jab campaigns while much of the poorer world still hasn’t gotten a first jab to much of the population.

“Let me be very clear: WHO is not against booster doses. We are against vaccine inequity,” said Dr Tedros.

“It’s a question of prioritisation. Giving booster doses to groups at low risk of severe disease or death simply puts at risk the lives of those at high risk who are still waiting for their first doses,” he insisted.

He pointed out that 41 countries have still not managed to vaccinate 10 percent of their population and 98 countries have not reached the 40 percent mark. “If we end the inequity, we end the pandemic. If we allow inequity to continue, we allow the pandemic to go forward,” he insisted.

Omicron ‘could overwhelm’ health systems

Countries across Europe and the rest of the world have been enacting further restrictions to fight the spread of COVID-19, and especially the new variant Omicron.

“Seventy-seven countries have now reported cases of Omicron, but the reality is that Omicron is probably in most countries even though it has not yet been detected,” Ghebreyesus said.

He added that the WHO was concerned that some considered Omicron to be more benign than other strains.

“Even if Omicron causes less severe symptoms, the number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems,” he said.

According to Abdi Mahamud, incident manager at WHO, the spread of the variant is such that it could become a majority in some European countries by mid-December, when they are still dealing with the impact of the fifth wave of infection caused by the Delta variant.