Those unvaccinated can have a severe form of COVID-19 after Omicron infection, says WHO expert amid rising cases

Maria van Kerkhove, the health agency's technical lead on coronavirus, said that the surge of infections across the world is putting a significant burden on health care systems which are already severely overburdened

News18 Network January 24, 2022 09:30:48 IST
Those unvaccinated can have a severe form of COVID-19 after Omicron infection, says WHO expert amid rising cases

A doctor and health workers speak with a patient inside a COVID-19 coronavirus isolation centre in Navi Mumbai. AFP

Amid rising concerns regarding the spread of Omicron as the variant entered the community transmission stage in India and triggered ‘tsunami’ of cases in countries across the world, a top World Health Organisation (WHO) official on Sunday said that while Omicron is less severe than Delta, it is still a dangerous virus.

WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, Maria van Kerkhove, said, “People who have Omicron have a full spectrum of disease. Everything from asymptotic infection, all the way through severe disease and death. What we are learning is that people with underlying conditions, people with advanced age, people who are unvaccinated can have a severe form of COVID-19 following infection from Omicron."

She said people are still being hospitalised with Omicron and also dying due to the infection.

Laying stress on the importance of accurate data, she said that “while information suggests that it is less severe than Delta, but that doesn’t mean that it is mild."

When asked if everyone might get Omicron eventually, she noted the high transmissibility of the strain in comparison to other variants of concern. “Omicron is overtaking Delta in terms of circulation and is very efficiently transmitted between people. It doesn’t mean that everybody will eventually get Omicron."

However, the infectious disease epidemiologist said that the surge of cases across the world are putting a significant burden on health care systems which are already severely overburdened “given that we are entering the third year of the pandemic." “If people can’t receive the proper care that they need, then more people will end up with severe disease and death, and that’s something we want to prevent,” she said.

She added that the WHO is working with partners to come up with a comprehensive strategy to reduce exposure to the variant.

Noting that vaccination is “incredibly” protective against severe disease, deaths and prevent some infections and onward transmissions she noted that it is not perfect.

“People need to protect themselves against exposures through physical distancing, wearing of a well-fitted mask over the nose and mouth and handwashing, avoiding crowds, working from home, getting tested and seeking appropriate care when needed are the layered approaches through which one can protect themselves from infections,” she said.

The top WHO official said it is important to reduce transmission of Omicron for a number of reasons.

“First, we want to protect people from getting infected because there is a risk that you can develop severe disease. There are ways in which we can prevent but you are still at risk of developing the disease. And if you have underlying conditions, or if at an advanced age, unvaccinated, you could develop severe disease due to the high-risk factor.”

“Second, we don’t completely understand the impact of post-COVID condition or Long COVID. So people who are infected with the virus are at the risk of developing longer-term consequences. There is a lot to understand about this. The risk of developing post-COVID condition is dependent on your risk of getting infected in the first place.”

Third, she said a large number of cases are making it difficult for hospitals to operate, for services to be online, public transportation, making sure grocery stores are stocked, schools, etc.

Lastly, she said the more Omicron circulates, the more opportunities it has to change. “So this virus is circulating at an incredibly intense level around the world for a number of reasons. But the more the virus circulates, the more opportunities the virus has to change.”

“Omicron is not the last variant that you will hear us discuss and the possibility of future emergence of variants of concern is very real,” she warned.

Regarding future variants, she warned, “We don’t understand what the properties of those variants may be. Certainly, they will be more transmissible because they will need to overtake variants that are currently circulating. They could become more or less severe, but could also have properties of immune escape. We want to ensure that we reduce the risk of the emergence of variants of concern.”

Meanwhile, US immunologist Anthony Fauci has said, “Omicron is highly transmissible, but apparently not very pathogenic. While I hope that remains the case, but that would depend on what new variants emerge going forward,” he said.

Earlier this week, WHO Chief Tedros Ghebreyesus raised concerns about the impact of the variant having exhausted health workers and overburdened health systems. “I remain particularly concerned about many countries that have low vaccination rates, as people are many times more at risk of severe illness and death if they’re unvaccinated”, Tedros said.

Omicron may be less severe, but the WHO chief noted, “The narrative that it is mild disease is misleading, hurts the overall response and costs more lives.” Tedros noted that the virus is circulating “far too intensely with many still vulnerable” and argued that, for many countries, the next few weeks remain critical.

Regarding vaccinations, he said, “vaccines may be less effective at preventing infection and transmission of Omicron than they were for previous variants, but they still are exceptionally good at preventing serious disease and death”, he explained.

For him, immunisation continues to be “key to protecting hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.”

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