The World Health Organization called Tuesday for countries to keep calm and take “rational” measures in response to the new, fast-spreading COVID-19 variant Omicron, which has sparked global panic.
“We call on all member states to take rational, proportional risk-reduction measures,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a briefing to countries. “The global response must be calm, coordinated, and coherent.”
First reported to the WHO in southern Africa less than a week ago, the new strain has rapidly spread across continents, with dozens of countries announcing travel restrictions.
The UN health agency has cautioned against such restrictions, fearing that blocking travel from countries where new variants are first spotted could be unfair and dissuade surveillance.
“I thank Botswana and South Africa for detecting, sequencing, and reporting this variant so rapidly,” Tedros said, adding that it was “deeply concerning to me that those countries are now being penalized by others for doing the right thing.”
The WHO also advised Philippine health officials there is no need to reimpose the mandatory use of face shields even amid the possible entry of the more transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
“The virus is airborne, transferred via close contact transmission.
What is important is observing social distance, wearing a face mask and hygiene,” WHO representative to the Philippines Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe said during a briefing.
“As long as these minimum public health protocols are complied with and we ensure that people do not congregate in closed settings…face shields, at this point, are not mandatory because we are still looking at and understanding the transmission dynamics of the Omicron variant,” Abeyasinghe said.
He also advised Filipinos not to overreact to the possible entry of the new COVID-19 variant.
“We just need to be very rational in our approach,” Abeyasinghe said in a televised public briefing.
“They (public) should not assume that something is here, it needs to be confirmed by testing,” the WHO officials said.
At the same time, Tedros stressed that it remains unclear how dangerous the variant is.
“We still have more questions than answers about the effect of Omicron on transmission, severity of disease, and the effectiveness of tests, therapeutics, and vaccines,” he said at the special session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) that kicked off in Geneva on Monday.
The WHO chief said it was understandable that countries wanted to protect their citizens “against a variant that we don’t yet fully understand.”
“But I am equally concerned that several member states are introducing blunt, blanket measures that are not evidence-based or effective on their own, and which will only worsen inequities.”
In the Philippines, the use of face shields on top of face masks is not mandatory in areas under Alert Level 1, 2 and 3, unless indoor establishments require it.
But acting presidential spokesperson Karlo Nograles urged Filipinos to continue using face shields for added protection.
Abeyasinghe, however, said compliance will be higher if the approach is risk-based.
“There is significant discontentment on the mandatory use of face shields, so it is better to get compliance when it is risk-based,” he said.
Face shields have been widely unpopular because they are unwieldy and make it difficult to breathe. Critics have also pointed out that no other country in the world mandates the use of face shields.
Moreover, a UP wind engineer, Joshua Agar from the University of the Philippines, found that the shields may actually increase risk of exposure to the coronavirus because it sucks in air particles and keeps them trapped behind the shield.
In an earlier briefing, Epidemiology Bureau Director Dr. Alethea de Guzman said health officials expect the variant to enter at any time.
The WHO has classified Omicron as a variant of concern. The global organization said it is not yet clear if the variant is more transmissible compared to other variants or if it causes a more severe disease.
Abeyasinghe assured that WHO supports the Philippines’ COVID-19 alert level system.
“We recognize that COVID-19 is here for the long term, and we need to manage the risk of COVID-19 without harming the economy,” he said.
On Monday, the WHO said no deaths had yet been linked to the new variant.
The WHO said the latest variant has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic.
At the same time, the WHO said some countries may just not have the sequencing capacity to detect COVID-19 cases.
Abeyasinghe called on Philippine authorities to conduct whole genome sequencing of returning Filipinos or foreigners coming into the country.
“I would go to say that we should not be looking for Omicron only in countries that have confirmed the virus for now because there are many countries [where] the variant may be, but they may have no capacity for sequencing,” Abeyasinghe said.
“So, any returning overseas Filipinos or foreigners coming in who test positive, I think we need to do whole genome sequencing now and what is important from our genome sequencing perspective is because of the recent detection of the variant, we need to rapidly do genome sequencing of the most recent arrivals,” he said.
The official recommended concentrating the sequencing of samples to people who recently tested positive in the country’s entry points.
Elsewhere, health ministers from the Group of 7 (G7) nations on Monday called for “urgent action” to combat the newly identified Omicron COVID-19 variant spreading across the world as US President Joe Biden said the strain is “not a cause for panic.”
Australia and Japan led the growing list of countries imposing fresh travel restrictions or slamming shut their borders as the new strain identified last week spreads rapidly to Europe, Asia, and North America.
However, Biden told Americans he did not foresee new lockdowns or extending travel restrictions for now because of Omicron.
While no deaths have yet been reported from Omicron, and it remains unclear how infectious and how resistant the strain may prove to vaccines, its emergence underscores how besieged the world remains by COVID-19, nearly two years after the first cases were recorded.
Many governments, particularly in western Europe, had already struggled with rapid rises in cases and have reintroduced mandatory mask-wearing, social-distancing measures, curfews, or lockdowns–leaving businesses fearing another grim Christmas.
Following emergency talks, G7 health ministers said: “The global community is faced with the threat of a new, at a first evaluation, highly transmissible variant of COVID-19, which requires urgent action.”
The WHO said the overall risk from Omicron was “very high” and warned that any major surge would put pressure on health systems and cause more deaths.
“If another major surge of COVID-19 takes place driven by Omicron, consequences may be severe,” the WHO cautioned, concluding that “the overall global risk related to the new VOC (variant of concern) Omicron is assessed as very high.”
Scientists in South Africa said they had detected the new variant with at least 10 mutations, compared with three for Beta or two for Delta—the strain that hit the global recovery and sent millions worldwide back into lockdown.
However, South African doctor Angelique Coetzee, who raised the alarm over Omicron, said the cases she saw suggested the symptoms were milder than other variants.
Biden stressed that the United States was in a good position to control Omicron’s spread.
“We have more tools today to fight the variant than we’ve ever had before,” he said, adding that his chief medical adviser Anthony Fauci expects current vaccines to work against the new variant, with boosters enhancing protection.
US drugmaker Pfizer and the backers of Russian vaccine Sputnik V said separately they were working on versions of their COVID-19 vaccines targeting Omicron, while US pharmaceutical company Moderna had said on Friday that it would develop a booster shot against the variant.
The announcement of the new variant sent stock markets and oil prices tumbling last week, but they have rebounded somewhat since.
US Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said Monday that Omicron could slow the recovery of the US economy and labor market and heighten uncertainty regarding inflation.
Omicron has prompted some countries to tighten border controls.
On Monday, Japan joined Israel in announcing plans to bar all new foreign travelers. Australia announced it was delaying by two weeks the relaxation of restrictions that would have allowed skilled workers and foreign students to enter.
The growing list of countries to impose travel curbs on southern Africa includes Britain, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.
“The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa — and they should not be penalized for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said.
China’s President Xi Jinping on Monday pledged Africa 1 billion COVID vaccine doses as the continent struggles to acquire enough jabs to immunize against the disease.
The first confirmed case of the Omicron variant was in South Africa on Nov. 9, with infections spreading rapidly in the country.
With the spread of the new variant and rising cases overall, governments are struggling to enforce new measures.
Dutch police arrested a couple who fled a quarantine hotel and boarded a flight to Spain, despite one of them having tested positive for COVID-19.
And populations are continuing to rebel — tens of thousands took to the streets in Austria over the weekend to object to mandatory vaccinations.
The severity of Omicron’s economic impact will depend on how dangerous the variant proves to be, and how well existing vaccinations stand up to it.
That has meant that even with the most favorable scenarios in mind, economists are already revising their 2022 forecasts downwards.
The International Monetary Fund, which expects growth of 4.9 percent for the next year, has been insisting for months that the coronavirus and its variants remain the main threat.
The economic impact could be “modest,” in the order of 0.25 percentage points on global growth in 2022, if Omicron causes “relatively mild symptoms” and the vaccines are “effective,” said Gregory Daco, chief economist at Oxford Economics.
In the worst-case scenario, in which Omicron proves extremely dangerous and large swaths of the world are in lockdown again, 2022 growth could fall to around 2.3 percent, as compared to the 4.5 percent expected by Oxford Economics before the variant emerged.
And in such a scenario it is not certain that governments, which have stumped up trillions of dollars in aid since the start of the pandemic, would be willing to put in place further fiscal stimulus packages, especially if vaccines are available, Daco said.
Those aspects “are going to be really key to how it affects the global economy and people’s behavior,” said Erik Lundh, an economist at The Conference Board.
Beyond government measures to contain the new strain, fear of infection could lead people to limit their own travel and economic activities, such as going to restaurants and reducing consumption, which will in turn impact growth, Lundh said.
Another risk is the exacerbation of the global supply chain crunch.
Lundh pointed out that “a lot of air cargo is stored basically in the belly of passenger planes…It’s not just all sorts of FedEx planes.””So, if there are cancellations, if there’s a lapse in demand for commercial flights for passengers, it does run the risk of limiting the route of trade,” which could, in turn, worsen inflationary pressures as goods become scarcer. With AFP