The World Health Organization called for a calm, measured approach to the new variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 on Tuesday, cautioning against restrictions on travel that might lead to a weakening of surveillance and tracking.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a briefing at the agency’s World Health Assembly that the global response to the variant dubbed omicron that was classified last Friday as a “variant of concern” must be “calm, coordinated and coherent.”
The variant, which was reported last week by scientists in South Africa, has more mutations than any of the earlier variants, and testing must now be conducted to determine whether is it more transmissible, more lethal, or more resistant to existing vaccines and treatments. News of its detection was immediately greeted with travel bans on flights from South Africa and neighboring countries by the U.S., the U.K. and other countries as well as the European Union.
“I thank Botswana and South Africa for detecting, sequencing and reporting this variant so rapidly,” Tedros said, who said it was “deeply concerning to me that those countries are now being penalized by others for doing the right thing.”
Tedros also acknowledged that for now there are more questions than answers about omicron and urged patience. He also highlighted the reality that many wealthier countries hogged initial supplies of vaccine, leaving Africa and other places particularly vulnerable to new variants.
In related news, Dutch health authorities said Tuesday that omicron was already in the Netherlands when South Africa alerted the WHO about it last week, as the Associated Press reported.
The Netherlands’ RIVM health institute reportedly has found omicron in samples dating from Nov. 19 and 23. The WHO said South Africa first reported the variant to the U.N. healthy agency on Nov. 24.
Authorities in the eastern German city of Leipzig said they had confirmed an infection with the omicron variant in a 39-year-old man who had neither been abroad nor had contact with anyone who had been, the AP reported, citing the news agency dpa. Leipzig is in the eastern state of Saxony, which currently has Germany’s highest overall coronavirus infection rate.
Japan and France announced their first cases of the new variant on Tuesday.
The variant has now been detected in more than a dozen countries. Despite the global worry, doctors in South Africa thus far are reporting patients are suffering mostly mild symptoms. But they warn that it is early and most of the new cases are in people in their 20s and 30s, who generally have not gotten as sick from COVID-19 as older patients.
Moderna MRNA, -4.36% CEO Stéphane Bancel told the Financial Times there’s no world where current vaccines are as effective as they have been against the delta variant. And he suggested the drop-off could be significant.
“I think it’s going to be a material drop. I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to … are like, ‘This is not going to be good.’ ”
Moderna had previously announced that data on the ability of its vaccine to neutralize the omicron variant would be expected within weeks as it works to rapidly advance a booster candidate directly targeting the variant.
In other medical news, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. ‘s REGN, -2.73% president and chief medical officer, George Yancopoulos, told the Wall Street Journal that his company’s antibody treatment loses effectiveness against omicron based on early tests. The full impact will only be known in the coming weeks after further testing, he said.
Separate testing of the antibody developed by Eli Lilly & Co. LLY, -2.66% suggests it, too, is less effective against omicron. Researchers say that some antibody therapies are likely to be vulnerable to omicron because it contains mutations to the spike protein that the Regeneron and Lilly drugs target, while other drugs should hold up well because they attack elements of the virus unchanged in the variant.
Yancopoulos said the company is already working on alternative antibodies that should hold up against the variant. “What we have to admit is, in the course of the past six days, our urgency has increased,” Yancopoulos said in an interview. “What started out as a backup plan has now been made a lot more urgent.”
His comments come as an advisory panel to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration meets to discuss Merck’s MRK, +0.03% antiviral for high-risk patients and vote on whether to recommend it.
Antivirals are expected to be a game changer in fighting COVID, as they can be taken at home, while all other existing treatments have to be administered by infusion or subcutaneously in a clinical setting.
The U.S. continues to average more than 880 COVID deaths a day, according to a New York Times tracker, and cases and hospitalizations are rising again. Michigan continues to lead on a per capita basis, with cases in the state averaging more than 8,000 a day.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker, meanwhile, is showing that almost 197 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 59.3% of the overall population. That number has barely budged in weeks, even as the booster program has taken off with 40.2 million people receiving a booster shot.
In other news, Greece will impose a monthly fine on citizens over the age of 60 who don’t get vaccinated against COVID, in its latest effort to stem the spread and effects of the pandemic and protect vulnerable people as the holidays near, Dow Jones Newswires reported.
China, which has one of the strictest “zero-COVID” policies in the world, said the Olympics will go ahead as planned, despite the uncertainty around omicron, Reuters reported. Beijing is set to stage the Winter Games from Feb. 4 to Feb. 20, without foreign spectators and with all athletes and related personnel contained in a “closed loop” and subject to daily testing for COVID-19.
The German constitutional court has ruled that the government’s partial lockdown is lawful, Deutsche Welle reported. In two separate rulings, the court determined that curfews, contact restrictions and school closures were allowed, dismissing complaints that had been lodged by protesters.
The global tally for the coronavirus-borne illness climbed above 262.4 million on Monday, while the death toll edged above 5.21 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.
The U.S. continues to lead the world with a total of 48.4 million cases and 779,015 deaths.
India is second by cases after the U.S. at 34.6 million and has suffered 468,980 deaths. Brazil has the second highest death toll at 614,376 and 22.1 million cases.
In Europe, Russia has reported the most fatalities at 269,900 deaths, followed by the U.K. at 145,254.
China, where the virus was first discovered late in 2019, has had 111,258 confirmed cases and 4,809 deaths, according to its official numbers, which are widely held to be massively understated.