By Francesco Guarascio and Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, Dec 3 (Reuters) – The World Health Organization (WHO) chief scientist on Friday urged people not to panic over the emergence of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, saying it is too early to determine. if vaccines against COVID-19 will have to be modified to combat it.
In remarks made in an interview at the Reuters Next conference, Soumya Swaminathan also stated that it is impossible to predict whether omicron will become the dominant variant.
Ómicron has established itself in Asia, Africa, America, the Middle East and Europe and has reached seven of the nine South African provinces where it was first identified. Many governments have tightened travel rules to avoid the variant.
Not much is known yet about omicron, which has been detected in more than two dozen countries as parts of Europe grapple with a wave of delta-variant infections.
Australia became the latest country to report community transmission of the new variant, a day after it was found in five US states.
WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said earlier at a United Nations briefing in Geneva that vaccine manufacturers should prepare for the possibility of having to adjust their products.
Ugur Sahin, CEO of German biotech BioNTech, which makes a COVID vaccine with Pfizer, told Reuters Next that they should be able to adapt their doses relatively quickly. He also indicated that current vaccines should continue to provide protection against serious disease despite mutations.
Takeshi Kasai, WHO director for the Western Pacific, told a news conference that vaccines are the solution and that border controls can only buy time.
“People should not rely only on border measures. The most important thing is to prepare for these variants with potentially high transmissibility. So far, the available information suggests that we do not have to change our approach,” he said.
Kasai urged countries to fully vaccinate vulnerable groups and adhere to preventive measures such as the use of masks and social distancing.
Nearly 264 million people have been infected by the coronavirus since it was first detected in China in late 2019, with 5.48 million dead, according to a Reuters tally.
Vaccination rates vary from country to country, but there are worrying gaps in the poorest nations. Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world and once the epicenter of Asia’s COVID-19, has fully inoculated only about 35% of its population.
Australia’s chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, said omicron is likely to become the dominant variant globally within a few months, but there is no evidence at this stage that it is more dangerous than delta.
In the United States, the administration of President Joe Biden announced measures to protect itself against the spread of the virus. Starting Monday, arriving international air travelers will have to have tested negative for COVID-19 in a test conducted the day before travel.
In addition to wreaking havoc on the travel industry, the crisis has hit financial markets and undermined major economies just as they were beginning to rebound from delta-caused lockdowns.
GRAPHIC: Omicron variant map https://tmsnrt.rs/3d2roti
GRAPH: Spread of COVID-19 Variants of Concern https://tmsnrt.rs/3hYU08J
REUTERS NEXT-WHO chief scientist says omicron is “quite infectious” and shouldn’t panic
Vaccine manufacturers must prepare to adjust products after omicron appearance, says WHO
REUTERS NEXT-BioNTech can quickly tailor its omicron vaccine: CEO
SUMMARY 2-The US deepens its fight against omicron, which spreads throughout the world
(Report from Reuters newsrooms; written by Stephen Coates and Nick Macfie; edited in Spanish by Carlos Serrano)