The new strain of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 dubbed omicron and classified a ‘variant of concern’ by the World Health Organization dominated headlines on the pandemic Monday, although experts stressed that it would take at least a couple of weeks before it can be determined whether it is more transmissible or more lethal than earlier variants.
The WHO cautioned that the overall global risk from omicron is ‘very high’, and repeated its message from Friday that countries should test and track the variant and also accelerate vaccine coverage and emphasize mitigation measures like wearing face masks, distancing and hand washing.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a special session of the World Health Assembly that the emergence of the new variant “underlines just how perilous and precarious our situation is.”
The session has been called to allow WHO member states to create a plan to tackle the next pandemic and avoid some of the shortcomings that have hampered the response to the current one.
“Indeed, Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics: our current system disincentivizes countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores,” said Tedros.
Separately, G-7 health ministers are meeting Monday to discuss measures to tackle omicron.
Already, a swath of countries have announced bans or restrictions on travel from South Africa and neighboring countries, including the U.S., the U.K., Japan, Australia, Poland, Norway and the EU.
Omicron has been detected in at least a dozen countries, including Canada, meaning it has reached North America. The other countries include France, the U.K., Germany, Portugal, Denmark, Israel, Hong Kong, Australia and South Africa. For now, it’s not clear whether it will prove resistant to the current vaccines. Moderna
Dr. Anthony Facui, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and President Joe Biden’s chief medical officer, urged Americans to take the variant seriously, but said there’s no reason to panic.
“We just really need to, as I’ve said so often, prepare for the worst,” Fauci told ABC News’ “This Week.” “It may not be that we’re going to have to go the route that people are saying. We don’t know a lot about this virus. So, we want to prepare as best we can, but it may turn out that this preparation, although important, may not necessarily push us to the next level.”
Fauci said getting vaccinated and getting boosters are still the best defense.
“I don’t think there’s any possibility that this could completely evade any protection by vaccine. It may diminish it a bit, but that’s the reason why you boost,” he told ABC News. “If ever there was a reason for the people who were vaccinated to get boosted, and for those who were unvaccinated to get vaccinated, it’s now,” Fauci said in a separate interview with NBC News.
On Monday, Biden echoed those comments, as he promised Americans won’t have to deal with the types of lockdowns that some Europeans are facing.
“On Thursday, I’ll be putting forward a detailed strategy outlining how we’re going to fight COVID this winter — not with shutdowns or lockdowns, but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing and more,” the president said during his brief speech at the White House.
The U.S. is averaging more than 960 COVID deaths a day, according to a New York Times tracker, although the number may be underreported given staffing shortages at health centers over the holiday weekend.
But cases and hospitalizations are starting to tick up again and there are concerns that travel over the Thanksgiving holiday will lead to a fresh surge of cases. Michigan continues to lead the country for new cases measured on a per capita basis, averaging more than 8,000 new cases a day.
But other hot spots are emerging, including Massachusetts, where cases are up more than 80% in the last two weeks, and Illinois, where they haver risen more than 70%, the New York Times tracker shows.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker, meanwhile, is showing that 196 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 59.1% of the overall population. That number has barely moved in weeks.
In other news, the Dutch police have arrested a married couple who fled a quarantine hotel after one of them tested positive for COVID on arrival from a flight from South Africa to take a flight out of the country, the Guardian reported. The Portuguese woman and Spanish man were arrested in their seats on a plane leaving for Spain.
With an expanded definition to reflect the times, Merriam-Webster has declared an omnipresent truth as its 2021 word of the year: vaccine.
“This was a word that was extremely high in our data every single day in 2021,” Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor-at-large, told The Associated Press ahead of Monday’s announcement.
The global tally for the coronavirus-borne illness climbed above 261.7 million on Monday, while the death toll edged above 5.20 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.
The U.S. continues to lead the world with a total of 48.2 million cases and 776,713 deaths.
India is second by cases after the U.S. at 34.6 million and has suffered 468,790 deaths. Brazil has second highest death toll at 614,278 and 22 million cases.
In Europe, Russia has the most fatalities at 268,705 deaths, followed by the U.K. at 145,218.
China, where the virus was first discovered late in 2019, has had 111,188 confirmed cases and 4,809 deaths, according to its official numbers, which are widely held to be massively understated.