WHO Says Delta, Boosting Vaccination Still Agency’s ‘Priority’ As First Cases Of Omicron Variant Detected In North America, Scotland

Topline

Tackling the delta variant is still the World Health Organization’s “priority” while it waits to find out more about the omicron coronavirus variant, the agency’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said Monday, as governments around the world race to contain the potentially vaccine-resistant strain and officials confirm the first cases in North America and Scotland. 

Key Facts

Despite global uproar over the new coronavirus variant, omicron, Swaminathan told CNBC increasing vaccine coverage and the delta variant are still the WHO’s priority, noting the vast majority of Covid-19 cases around the world—99%—”are due to the delta variant and more deaths are occurring in the unvaccinated.”     

Swaminathan said scientists needed more time to understand whether omicron, which has a number of concerning mutations, is a more transmissible variant than delta, has a different or more severe set of symptoms or is able to evade protection from vaccines or previous infection. 

Swaminathan’s comments follow the identification of the first two omicron cases in North America Sunday, when Ottawa officials said two individuals who had recently traveled from Nigeria tested positive.

Federal health minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the development demonstrates Canada’s “monitoring system is working” and “it is expected that other cases of this variant will be found in Canada” as monitoring and testing continues. 

The Scottish government said six cases of the variant had been found on Monday, the first cases identified in Scotland.

French health officials said Sunday eight possible cases of the variant had been detected across the country, adding that testing was underway to confirm the diagnoses. 

Crucial Quote

Vaccination is still “really important,” Swaminathan said, noting that, “at the moment, it’s the delta variant that’s the major cause of the pandemic around the world” and there is a “huge number of people around the world who haven’t had their first course of vaccines.” Even with omicron, Swaminathan said it’s reasonable to assume the vaccines in use offer some degree of protection.

Key Background

The WHO designated omicron, or B.1.1.529, a variant of concern last week after researchers in South Africa sounded the alarm over a highly mutated, possibly dangerous form of the virus. Experts fear the unusually high number of mutations—many of which are on the virus’ spike protein, which many widely-used vaccines train the immune system to recognize—could make the strain more transmissible and better able to evade the protection offered by vaccines. Experts and public health officials, including the WHO, have emphasized that more research is needed to know whether omicron is more contagious and if vaccines are effective against it. Governments around the world have moved swiftly to close off travel to southern Africa, though the variant has since been found around the world in countries including the U.K., Hong Kong, Belgium, Israel and Botswana, where the variant was first identified using genome sequencing, and evidence suggests it may be rapidly replacing the delta variant in affected regions of Botswana and Gauteng

What To Watch For

Omicron in the U.S. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S.’ government’s top infectious disease expert, said Saturday he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the omicron coronavirus variant is already circulating in the U.S. When a virus shows “this degree of transmissibility” it “almost invariably ultimately is going to go essentially all over,” he added

Tangent

Dutch police arrested a couple of escapees from a quarantine hotel, officials announced Sunday. The couple were reportedly quarantining in the same region where travelers from South Africa are in self-isolation after 61 passengers on an incoming flight tested positive for Covid-19. 13 of whom tested positive for the new variant. It is not known whether the escapees were among those passengers. 

Further Reading

Travel Restrictions, Stocks Down: Here’s What To Know About Omicron, The New Highly Mutated Covid Variant (Forbes)

Fauci: US could face ‘fifth wave’ of Covid as Omicron variant nears (Guardian)

Delta variant is still the ‘major cause of the pandemic’ despite worries about omicron, WHO says (CNBC)

Covid: Dutch police arrest quarantine hotel escapees (BBC)

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