A World Health Organization (WHO) official has said evidence is growing that the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is affecting the upper respiratory tract, which results in milder symptoms than previous strains.
“We are seeing more and more studies pointing out that Omicron is infecting the upper part of the body. Unlike other ones, the lungs who would be causing severe pneumonia,” WHO Incident Manager Abdi Mahamud told Geneva-based journalists.
“It can be a good news, but we really require more studies to prove that.”
Since the heavily mutated variant was first detected in November, WHO data shows it has spread quickly and emerged in at least 128 countries, presenting dilemmas for many nations and people seeking to reboot their economies and lives after nearly two years of COVID-related disruptions.
However, while case numbers have surged to all-time records, the hospitalisation and death rates are often lower than at other phases in the pandemic. “What we are seeing now is….the decoupling between the cases and the deaths,” he said.
His remarks on the reduced risks of severe disease chime with other data, including a study from South Africa, which was one of the first countries where Omicron was detected.
However, Mahamud also sounded a note of caution, calling South Africa an “outlier” since it has a young population, among other factors.
And he warned that Omicron’s high transmissibility meant it would become dominant within weeks in many places, posing a threat to medical systems in countries where a high proportion of the population remains unvaccinated. While Omicron seemed to be slipping past antibodies, evidence was emerging that COVID-19 vaccines still provided some protection, by eliciting a second pillar of the immune response from T-cells, Mahamud said.
“Our prediction is protection against severe hospitalization and death (from Omicron) will be maintained,” he said, saying this also applied to vaccines developed by Sinopharm and Sinovac that are used in China, where Omicron cases remain very low.
“The challenge has not been the vaccine but the vaccination and reaching those vulnerable populations.”
Asked about whether an Omicron-specific vaccine was needed, Mahamud said it was too early to say but voiced doubts and stressed that the decision required global coordination and should not be left to manufacturers to decide alone.More and more studies point out that Omicron is infecting the upper respiratory tract, says official