The Omicron COVID-19 variant is spreading around the world faster than any previous strain, and top doctors with the World Health Organization are urging people to abandon the myth that it’s a mild disease.
During a news update Tuesday, WHO officials said the sheer number of cases of the highly transmissible virus could lead to health system overloads around the world. They urged countries to consider tightening public health measures and not rely on vaccine protection alone.
“Seventy-seven countries have now reported cases of Omicron, and the reality is that Omicron is probably in most countries, even if it hasn’t been detected yet,” WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “[It’s] spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant.”
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) December 14, 2021
Ghabreyesus also said he’s concerned that people are “dismissing” Omicron as a mild virus. Even if it causes mild infection in the majority of cases, if more people get sick, there will still be more patients seeking hospital care — and some countries could be overloaded.
“Surely, we have learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril.”
WHO presses for vaccine equity
Ghabreyesus advised countries to use all control measures to combat Omicron, including vaccines, distancing, hand-washing, and ventilation.
“I need to be very clear: vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis.”
It’s also imperative that rich countries don’t hoard vaccine supply. According to the WHO, 41 countries have not yet been able to vaccinate 10% of their population, and 98 countries have not been able to reach 40% of their population vaccinated.
Although the WHO is not against booster shots, it argues that the most vulnerable groups who still need their primary doses should be protected first.
“If we allow inequity to continue, we allow the pandemic to continue,” Ghabreyesus said.