LONDON — The omicron variant of the coronavirus is likely to spread further and poses a “very high” global risk, according to the World Health Organization, which warned Monday that surges of Covid infections caused by the variant of concern could have “severe consequences” for some areas.
“Given mutations that may confer immune escape potential and possibly transmissibility advantage, the likelihood of potential further spread of Omicron at the global level is high,” the WHO said in its risk assessment on Monday within a technical brief to its 194 member states.
“Depending on these characteristics, there could be future surges of Covid-19, which could have severe consequences, depending on a number of factors including where surges may take place. The overall global risk related to the new VOC [variant of concern] Omicron is assessed as very high,” the U.N. health agency said.
The WHO designated the variant B.1.1.529, which was first spotted in South Africa, as a “variant of concern” on Friday.
It said in its report on Monday that it is “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.”
However, there are still considerable uncertainties and unknowns regarding this variant, it said, repeating that sentiment Monday.
First of all, experts don’t yet know just how transmissible the variant is and whether any increases in infections are related to immune escape, intrinsic increased transmissibility, or both.
Secondly, there is uncertainty over how well vaccines protect against infection, transmission and clinical disease of different degrees of severity, and death. And third of all, there is uncertainty over whether the variant presents with a different severity profile.
The WHO has said it will take weeks to understand how the variant may affect diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. Preliminary evidence suggests the strain has an increased risk of reinfection, however.