Photo used for illustrative purpose.
Gulf Today Report
The omicron variant has been detected in 38 countries but no deaths have yet been reported, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Friday, as authorities worldwide rushed to stem the spread of the heavily mutated COVID-19 strain.
The United States and Australia became the latest countries to confirm their first locally transmitted cases of the variant, as the number of omicron infections from a Christmas party in Norway rose to 13.
The WHO has warned it could take weeks to determine how infectious the variant is, whether it causes more severe illness and how effective current treatments and vaccines are against it. “We’re going to get the answers that everybody out there needs,” WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said.
The WHO said it had still not seen any reports of deaths related to omicron, but the new variant’s spread has cast recovery into doubt and led to warnings that it could cause more than half of Europe’s Covid cases in the next few months. A preliminary study by researchers in South Africa, where the new variant was first reported on Nov.24, suggests the strain is three times more likely to cause reinfections compared to the Delta or Beta strains.
THREAT TO CHILDREN: Doctors said there had been a spike in the number of children under five admitted to hospital since omicron emerged, but stressed it was too early to know if young children were particularly susceptible. “The incidence in those under-fives is now second-highest, and second only to the incidence in those over 60,” said Wassila Jassat from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
In the United States, two cases involved residents with no recent international travel history — showing that omicron is already circulating inside the country. “This is a case of community spread,” the Hawaii Health Department confirmed. US President Joe Biden on Thursday unveiled his plans to battle Covid-19 during the winter, with new testing requirements for travellers and a surge in vaccination efforts.
NO PANIC: The WHO’s chief scientist on Friday urged people not to panic over the emergence of the omicron variant and said it was too early to say if vaccines would be need to be reworked. Speaking in an interview at the Reuters Soumya Swaminathan 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 omicron “was highly transmissible” and cited data from South Africa showing the number of cases doubling daily. “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.
JABS MAY LIMIT IMPACT: India expects the omicron variant to cause less severe disease, the health ministry said on Friday, thanks to vaccinations and high prior exposure to the Delta variant that infected nearly 70% of the population by July. Junior doctors protested to demand that staff numbers be beefed up, warning of a disastrous situation if the new variant overwhelmed health care facilities, although nearly half of India’s 944 million adults have been fully vaccinated.
As many as 84% have received at least one dose, with more than 125 million people due for a second by the end of November, as the government pushes more to get inoculated in the face of omicron. “Given the fast pace of vaccination in India and high exposure to Delta variant ... the severity of the disease is anticipated to be low,” the ministry said in a statement. “However, scientific evidence is still evolving.”
On Friday, Malaysia also reported a first omicron infection in a foreign student arriving from South Africa on Nov.19. Sri Lanka also announced its first case, a citizen returning from South Africa.
GRIM CHRISTMAS: Rising infections of the Delta variant had already forced European governments to reintroduce mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing measures, curfews or lockdowns, leaving businesses fearing another grim Christmas. Belgian authorities said on Friday that primary schools would close a week early for the Christmas holidays.
Germany had already announced its regional leaders had agreed new measures including a ban on fireworks at new year parties to discourage large gatherings.
In the UK, various government ministers have been expressing diverging opinions, not only on the idea of hosting Christmas parties, but also on the kind of conduct deemed acceptable. “For what it’s worth, I don’t think there should be much snogging under the mistletoe,” said one minister, Therese Coffey.
Europe has crossed 75 million coronavirus cases, according to a Reuters tally, as the region braces for the new Omicron variant at a time when hospitals in some countries are already strained by the current surge.
Experts said the findings may change how governments plan for the next phase of the pandemic, including how they fund and organise vaccine research and development.
"I am equally concerned that several member states are introducing blunt, blanket measures that are not evidence-based or effective on their own, and which will only worsen inequities," said the WHO chief Tedros.
Some intensive care specialists are trying to hire more permanent staff. Others want to create a reservist "army" of medical professionals ready to be deployed wherever needed to work in wards with seriously ill patients.
ICN Chief Executive Officer Howard Catton said: "Nursing is looking like one of the most dangerous jobs in the world at the moment. We need to get this data for every country and work out exactly what is going on that explains the variations that are evident with even a cursory glance at the figures.'
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