The new Coronavirus variant Omicron is spreading around the world at an unprecedented rate, warns the World Health Organization (WHO).
Cases of the strongly mutated variant have been confirmed in 77 countries.
But at a press conference, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was likely the case with many others who had not yet discovered it.
Dr. Tedros said he was concerned that not enough was being done to address the variant.
“We have certainly learned by now that we are underestimating this virus at our own risk. Even if Omicron causes less serious illnesses, the sheer number of cases could again overwhelm unprepared health systems,” he said.
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The Omicron variant was first identified in South Africa in November, and the country has seen an increase in infections since then. President Cyril Ramaphosa has tested positive for Covid-19 and is currently isolating himself with mild symptoms.
A number of countries imposed travel bans on South Africa and its neighbors following the emergence of Omicron, but this did not prevent its spread around the world.
With other developments
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The UK government also announced Tuesday that all 11 countries would be removed from their red travel list, and Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the Omicron variant had become so widespread that the rules no longer made much sense.
Italy extended the state of emergency until March 31, 2022 amid concerns about Omicron. The measures, due to expire in late December, give the government more powers to restrict travel and public gatherings
The Netherlands say they will close elementary schools a week before the start of the Christmas holidays to help prevent infections
Among other things, Norway has announced a ban on serving alcohol in bars and restaurants
In the press conference on Tuesday, Dr. Tedro’s concern about vaccine injustice as some countries accelerate the introduction of a booster vaccination in response to Omicron.
Recent studies of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine showed that it produced far fewer neutralizing antibodies against Omicron than against the original strain, but that this deficit could be reversed with a third booster dose.
Dr. Tedros said boosters could “play an important role” in containing the spread of Covid-19, but it was “a matter of prioritization”.
“The order is important. Giving boosters to groups at low risk of serious illness or death simply puts the lives of those at high risk who are still waiting for their primary dose due to supply shortages at risk, “he said.
Shipments to the Covax global vaccine sharing program have increased in recent months.
However, World Health Authorities fear that a tens of million doses shortfall – like the one that occurred mid-year when India stopped exporting vaccines – could recur.
In poorer countries, some people at risk still need to receive a single dose.