The Omicron variant which is surging in South Africa and has been detected in some 40 countries seems to be “highly transmissible”, says the World Health Organisation’s chief scientist.
Dr Soumya Swaminathan said COVID infections had been doubling in South Africa every day and it appeared as though Omicron was to blame.
And while the majority of new cases appeared to be mild, Dr Swaminathan said it was too early to conclude whether the highly mutated variant was less potent than Delta.
Dr Swaminathan was speaking at a Reuters NEXT Global Conference.
“From the early reports that we have…we do think it is quite infectious, quite transmissible, because South Africa has been reporting a very rapid increase in the number of cases,” she said.
“In fact, they’ve been doubling every day, and that suggests that this virus is highly transmissible,”
“How much more transmissible than Delta, it’s hard to say at this point of time, but it is a very transmissible variant, that’s what it appears.”
Dr Swaminathan said it was too early to reach a conclusion on the severity of illness from Omicron because there was usually a lag between an initial infection progressing to severe disease.
“I think we need to wait; let’s hope it’s milder, especially in those who are vaccinated or who have some previous natural immunity,” she said.
“But it’s too early to conclude about the variant and its behaviour as a whole.
Dr Swaminathan said Omicron could become the dominant strain worldwide but people should not panic.
“How worried should we be? We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we’re in a different situation to a year ago,” she said.
“Delta accounts for 99 per cent of infections around the world. This variant would have to be more transmissible to out-compete and become dominant worldwide. It is possible but it’s not possible to predict.”
It comes as the first data on Omicron cases in South Africa suggests the variant may be able to re-infect people multiple times, effectively evading the body’s natural immunity and potentially vaccines.
The BBC reports a study of 36,000 suspected re-infections found a spike in reinfections in the latest wave which timing suggests could be related to the spread of Omicron which is now the dominant strain in some provinces.
By comparison, there was no surge in the risk of re-infection during either the Beta or Delta waves.
However scientists have not tested each patient to prove it is Omicron and the research hasn’t been reviewed yet by other scientists.
Meanwhile leading Australian infectious diseases expert Dr Nick Coatsworth has called for a more balanced approach to dealing with Omicron.
The former deputy chief medical officer said he understood the precautionary measures being taken in Australia, but the new variant was likely to be milder than other strains of COVID-19.
“There’s nothing that suggests that the vaccine is not working for the Omicron variant,” he said.
“We do need to be concerned about the variants but we shouldn’t become over-concerned when the early evidence is that this particular variant is more mild than the Delta.”
Dr Coatsworth said it was unlikely there would be a new overly lethal version of the virus, and called for a more balanced approach, calling into question Australia’s decision to shut the border to several African nations.
“It’s proven that Omicron isn’t just in southern African states, it’s also in Europe, it also may well have been in the Australian community,” Dr Coatsworth told Sky News.
“It may be elsewhere in the world that we have open borders to, then the consistency of the policy of shutting travel borders to certain African states starts getting called into question.”
There have been 13 cases of Omicron detected in Australia, 11 of them in NSW, one in the Northern Territory and one in the ACT.
Globally, more than 400 Omicron cases have been identified in close to 40 countries.
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said it was too early to determine whether Omicron would result in increased hospitalisations or deaths.
However, he said there was evidence it was the same as, or milder than, current variants.
Meanwhile, health authorities have decided not to shorten the time frame in which people are advised to get a COVID-19 booster shot.