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WHO warns risk from COVID variant is ‘very high,’ but cautions against travel bans

Global health organization says some mutations ‘may be associated with immune escape potential and higher transmissibility,’ but notes uncertainties remain

Medical workers in protective suits administer vaccines in Makati City, suburban Manila on November 29, 2021.(Ted ALJIBE / AFP)
Medical workers in protective suits administer vaccines in Makati City, suburban Manila on November 29, 2021.(Ted ALJIBE / AFP)

GENEVA — The World Health Organization warned Monday that new COVID-19 Omicron variant poses a “very high” risk globally, despite uncertainties about the danger and contagion levels of the new strain.

Medical workers in protective suits administer vaccines in Makati City, suburban Manila on November 29, 2021. The Southeast Asian nation launched a three-day vaccination drive targeting nine million people as young as 12 in an effort to accelerate the roll-out of jabs, amidst the threat of heavily mutated coronavirus variant Omicron. (Ted ALJIBE / AFP)

The UN health agency said the COVID strain first discovered in southern Africa was a “highly divergent variant with a high number of mutations… some of which are concerning and may be associated with immune escape potential and higher transmissibility.”

“The likelihood of potential further spread of Omicron at the global level is high,” WHO cautioned in a technical note.

To date, no deaths connected with the Omicron variant have been reported, it added.

But even if the new variant does not prove more dangerous or deadly than previous ones, if it spreads more easily it will spark more cases and more pressure on health systems, and thus more deaths, the organization said.

“If another major surge of COVID-19 takes place driven by Omicron, consequences may be severe,” it said, concluding that “the overall global risk related to the new VOC [variant of concern] Omicron is assessed as very high.”

A petrol attendant stands next to a newspaper headline in Pretoria, South Africa, November 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

The WHO said countries should enhance their surveillance to try to get a clear overview of where and how fast it is spreading.

It also urged accelerated vaccination against COVID, especially among vulnerable populations who have yet to receive any doses.

But it has cautioned against imposing travel bans, fearing that blocking travel from countries where new variants are first spotted could be unfair and dissuade surveillance.

“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” said WHO regional director Matshidiso Moeti.

A growing list of countries have already imposed travel restrictions on southern Africa, including Israel, Britain, Indonesia, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Many countries are also enacting more generalized restrictions. Israel has banned all foreign visitors for at least two weeks as it works to assess the nature of the threat.

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