The world will have more information on whether the Omicron COVID-19 variant is more transmissible than other variants within days, according to a top World Health Organization official.
Dr. Maria van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, told a press conference Wednesday that she expects more information soon.
“We expect to have more information on transmission within days, not necessarily weeks, but in days,” she said.
Right now, it’s “early days” and too soon to say whether the virus either transmits more easily or causes more or less severe disease than previous variants, van Kerkhove said.
She noted, though, that whatever the outcome of these studies, vaccines remain critical to the fight against the virus.
“We just want to assure you that the vaccines that are in use right now have very strong protection against the dominant virus that is circulating globally,” she said.
“So it is absolutely critical that when it’s your turn, you get vaccinated because the chances of you developing severe disease and dying while vaccinated is significantly less than if you’re not vaccinated.”
Getting more people their first and second doses globally should be the focus, she said, rather than giving already-vaccinated people booster shots – something other WHO officials said has limited evidence to support it.
Van Kerkhove also noted that since the WHO declared Omicron a variant of concern, countries have expanded surveillance for the variant. So far 23 countries have reported cases, and she expects that number will soon increase.
WHO officials expressed their distaste for travel bans targeted at countries that have reported cases of Omicron, particularly those in southern Africa.
Bans that keep out some travellers but permit others, depending on nationality, don’t make much sense from an epidemiological standpoint, said Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme.
“The idea you can just put a hermetic seal on some countries is not possible. I can’t see the logic from an epidemiological or public health perspective,” he said.
“Does the virus read your passport? Does the virus know your nationality or where you are a resident?”
The WHO also worries that having travel bans imposed on countries that announce new variants could discourage them from reporting important medical information to the world, van Kerkhove said.
“For the record, we’re very much in the middle of this pandemic,” she said. “We will get out of this pandemic. But every day, decisions need to be made of whether or not we’re getting closer to the end of this pandemic or we’re actually taking steps to prolong it.”
Countries need to keep up public health measures and ensure access to vaccines, van Kerkhove said.
“As we enter the third year of this pandemic, we need to put in the work.”