More information on the transmissibility of the new Omicron variant of coronavirus within days – faster than previously expected, the World Health Organisation has said.
Speaking at a news conference on Wednesday in Geneva, Maria Van Kerkhove, the Covid-19 technical lead in the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) health emergencies programme, said there was “some suggestion” that the variant is more transmissible, but more research was needed.
“We expect to have more information on transmission within days, not necessarily within weeks,” she said.
The timeline is quicker than the “weeks” WHO had predicted last week that it would take to assess the data.
Van Kerkhove added it was “early days” on making an assessment on the severity of the variant.
On Wednesday, a number of media reported an official at WHO saying early indications suggest most Omicron coronavirus cases are “mild”, and that there is no evidence to suggest the efficacy of vaccines has been reduced by the new strain. The media reports pointed to the news agency Reuters quoting an anonymous WHO official.
At the briefing, Van Kerkhove said: “We have seen reports of cases of Omicron that go from mild disease all the way to severe disease. There is some indication some of the patients are presenting with mild disease … but again, it’s early days.”
Van Kerkhove added reports of more hospitalisations in South Africa could be because there is more cases of Covid more widely.
Scientists have said they are concerned about the Omicron variant – also known as B.1.1.529 – as it has about 30 different mutations, double the number of the Delta variant. It has now been detected in 23 countries, WHO confirmed.
At the weekend, the South African doctor who was one of the first to suspect a different coronavirus strain among patients suggested patients at her clinic had symptoms different from the dominant Delta variant, albeit “very mild”.
Dr Angelique Coetzee, a private practitioner and chair of South African Medical Association, said: ”Most of them are seeing very, very mild symptoms and none of them so far have admitted patients to surgeries. We have been able to treat these patients conservatively at home.”
Coetzee, who is also on the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Vaccines, said unlike the Delta so far patients have not reported loss of smell or taste and there has been no major drop in oxygen levels with the new variant.
Her experience so far has been that the variant is affecting people who are 40 or younger. Almost half of the patients with Omicron symptoms that she treated were not vaccinated.
She saidL “The most predominant clinical complaint is severe fatigue for one or two days. With them, the headache and the body aches and pain.”
But other medics have warned against the burgeoning “mild” narrative.
On Wednesday, Prof Neil Ferguson, head of the disease outbreak analysis and modelling group at Imperial College London, said people should not assume that Covid will evolve to become a milder disease, adding that the threat posed by the Omicron coronavirus variant will not be clear until the end of December.
He told MPs that while evolution would drive Covid to spread more easily, the virus might not become less dangerous.
“Most of the transmission has already happened by the time people get hospitalised,” Ferguson told the Commons science and technology committee.
“The virus cares about replicating very fast within the respiratory tract and getting out into the environment. If that happens to kill somebody 10 days later the virus really doesn’t care.”