The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Sunday that it is not yet clear if the new Omicron coronavirus variant is more transmissible compared to other SARS-CoV-2 variants or if it causes more severe disease.
"Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalisation in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron," it said.
However, in a statement, the agency reiterated that preliminary evidence suggests there may be a higher risk of reinfection from the variant.
The WHO said it is working with technical experts to understand the potential impact of the variant on existing countermeasures against COVID-19 disease, including vaccines.
"There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants," the WHO said.
"Initial reported infections were among university studies—younger individuals who tend to have more mild disease — but understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant will take days to several weeks," it said.
PCR tests continue to detect infection with Omicron – which was first detected in South Africa earlier this month – and studies are ongoing to determine whether there is any impact on rapid antigen detection tests, the WHO said.
'We stand with African countires'
The World Health Organization on Sunday urged countries around the world not to impose flight bans on southern African nations due to concerns over the new omicron variant.
WHO's regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, called on countries to follow science and international health regulations in order to avoid using travel restrictions.
“Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” Moeti said in a statement. “If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based, according to the International Health Regulations, which is a legally binding instrument of international law recognized by over 190 nations.”
Moeti praised South Africa for following international health regulations and informing WHO as soon as its national laboratory identified the omicron variant.
“The speed and transparency of the South African and Botswana governments in informing the world of the new variant is to be commended," said Moeti. "WHO stands with African countries which had the courage to boldly share life-saving public health information, helping protect the world against the spread of COVID-19.”