The World Health Organization (WHO) urged countries to boost healthcare capacity and vaccinate their people to fight a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant, saying that travel curbs could buy time but alone were not the answer.
Despite shutting its borders to travel from high-risk southern African countries, Australia became the latest country to report community transmission of the new variant , a day after it was found in five U.S. States.
Omicron has gained a foothold in Asia, Africa, the Americas, the West Asia and Europe and has reached seven of the nine provinces of South Africa, where it was first identified. Many governments have tightened travel rules to keep the variant out.
“Border controls can buy time but every country and every community must prepare for new surges in cases,” Takeshi Kasai, the WHO’s western Pacific director, told a media briefing.
“People should not only rely on border measures. What is most important is to prepare for these variants with potential high transmissibility. So far the information available suggests we don’t have to change our approach.”
Mr. Kasai urged countries to fully vaccinate vulnerable groups and stick to preventive measures such as mask wearing and social distancing.
The WHO’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan also said it was impossible to predict if Omicron would become the dominant strain on Friday. She urged people not to panic over the new variant and said it was too early to say if COVID-19 vaccines would have to be modified to fight it.
"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% 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."
Omicron has been listed as a “variant of concern” by the WHO and scientists are still gathering data to establish how severe and contagious it is just as parts of Europe have been hit by surges of winter infections by the more familiar Delta variant.
Ugur Sahin, CEO of Germany’s BioNTech, which makes a COVID vaccine with Pfizer, said the company should be able to adapt the shots relatively quickly.
Mr. Sahin also said that current vaccines should continue to provide protection against severe disease, despite mutations.
Almost 264 million people have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus since it was first detected in central China in late 2019 and 5.48 million people have died, according to a Reuters tally.