The World Health Organization’s chief scientist told Reuters Next Conference on Friday that the Omicron version may be effective because it is highly permeable, but that a different vaccine may not be needed.

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Soumya Swaminathan also said that it is too early to say whether Omicron is milder than other types of coronavirus that cause COVID-19 and cast doubt on its origin, adding that it is definitely originated in Southern Africa.

“It is possible that it may become (the) dominant version,” Swaminathan said, “however, it was impossible to predict.” She said the delta variant is now the cause of 99% of infections globally.

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Scientists in the European Union and Australia are predicting that Omicron could be responsible for more infections than Delta within a few months.

She said Omicron was “highly transmissible” and that the number of daily cases was doubling, citing figures from South Africa.

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“How worried should we be? We need to be prepared and alert, not panic, because we are different from the situation a year ago,” Swaminathan said in an interview.

She said the WHO cannot say at this stage whether Omicron was a mild variant, even though many infections hitherto have been associated with less severe symptoms or no symptoms at all.

There is no conclusive evidence yet about the effect of Omicron on the effectiveness of antibodies.

“It appears to be able to overcome some of the natural immunity from previous infections,” said the world health body’s top scientist, but added that the vaccines are having an effect.

“The fact that they are not getting sick … means that the vaccines are still providing protection and we hope they will continue to provide protection,” Swaminathan said.

Vaccine against all coronaviruses?

Swaminathan was cautious about the need to upgrade existing vaccines, noting that a booster of existing shots may be sufficient against Omicron.

“It is possible that vaccines will work. It is possible that you may need an additional dose initially to boost the immune response,” she said.

He said the WHO’s technical advisory group is trying to find out whether a new type of vaccine against Omicron is needed.

Speaking to Reuters Next earlier in the day, BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said his company would be able to adapt its vaccine relatively quickly in response to Omicron and that the next few weeks would show just how urgent the upgrade was.

“I believe in theory at a certain time point that we will need a new vaccine against this new variant,” Sahin said.

Asked about the need for annual vaccine boosters, Swaminathan said, “WHO is preparing for all scenarios,” which may include an additional dose, especially among certain age groups or vulnerable sections of the population. .

But she added: “Natural infection acts as a booster.”

unknown origin

Swaminathan, a qualified pediatrician from India, raised doubts about the origin of the new variant, which was first detected in southern Africa, which is also reporting the highest number of cases.

“Where did it originate? We don’t know,” she said, adding that it may have originated in countries that don’t have enough genomic sequencing.

“We may never know.”

Swaminathan said the flight restrictions by some countries targeting southern Africa were inappropriate, adding that the variant had been identified in South Africa “due to excellent genomic sequencing and surveillance”.

“We feel terrible that they have been punished for this.”

The WHO has said travel restrictions can buy time, but are not the way to fight the Omicron variant, urging countries to boost health care capacity and vaccinate their populations.

Swaminathan also urged for greater equity in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and tests.

Asked if the Omicron variant would not have surfaced if Africa had received and given more vaccines, he said: “Absolutely.”

“There is a clear link between inequality in access to vaccines and the development of variants,” Swaminathan said.

(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio, Stephanie Nebe and Josephine Mason; Writing by Keith Weir and Alexander Smith; Editing by Katherine Evans)