World Health Organisation (WHO) classified Omicron a new Covid variant first detected in South Africa as a “highly transmissible” virus of concern.
The panel said early evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection. The discovery of Omicron a new Covid variant sent a chill through much of the world on Friday as nations raced to halt air travel, markets fell sharply and scientists held emergency meetings to weigh the exact risks, which were largely unknown. Medical experts and bodies, including the WHO, warned against any overreaction before the variant that originated in southern Africa was better understood. But a jittery world feared the worst nearly two years after Covid-19 emerged and triggered a pandemic that has killed more than five million people around the globe.
Some experts said:
The variant’s emergence illustrated how rich countries’ hoarding of vaccines threatens to prolong the pandemic. Fewer than 6% of people in Africa have been fully immunised against Covid-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose. Those conditions can speed up the spread of the virus, offering more opportunities for it to evolve into a dangerous variant.
Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at Britain’s University of Southampton, said:
This is one of the consequences of the inequity in vaccine rollouts and why the grabbing of surplus vaccines by richer countries will inevitably rebound on us all at some point. He urged Group of 20 leaders “to go beyond vague promises and actually deliver on their commitments to share doses”.
Jeffrey Halley of foreign exchange broker Oanda, said:
The new variant has also added to investor anxiety that months of progress containing Covid-19 could be reversed. Investors are likely to shoot first and ask questions later until more is known. In a sign of how concerned Wall Street has become, the market’s so-called fear gauge, known as the VIX, jumped 48% to a reading of 26.91. That’s the highest reading for the volatility index since January, before vaccines were widely distributed.
Speaking before the EU announcement, Dr Michael Ryan, head of emergencies at the WHO, warned against “knee-jerk responses,” said:
“We’ve seen in the past, the minute there’s any kind of mention of any kind of variation and everyone is closing borders and restricting travel,” Ryan said. “It’s really important that we remain open and stay focused.”
South African experts said:
“There was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease. As with other variants, some infected people display no symptoms. Even though some of the genetic changes appear worrisome, it was unclear if the new variant would pose a significant public health threat. Some previous variants, like the Beta variant, initially concerned scientists but did not spread very far.”
The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention agreed and strongly discouraged any travel bans on countries that reported the new variant. It said past experience shows that such travel bans have not yielded a meaningful outcome.