No deaths have been linked to the Omicron Covid-19 variant yet despite cases being recorded across the globe, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said.
The new coronavirus strain, first detected in South Africa, has now been reported in at least 38 countries and is thought to be spreading by community transmission.
The United States and Australia are the latest countries to confirm locally transmitted cases of the variant, while South Africa’s overall Covid-19 cases has now surpassed three million.
The news comes after a further 75 cases of Omicron have been detected in England, bringing the UK’s total to 134 cases so far.
Cases have now been reported in England, Scotland and Wales, but it is yet to be reported in Northern Ireland.
What has the WHO said?
Health experts are still gathering data on the variant, with the WHO warning it could take several weeks to determine how infectious the new strain is.
It is still unclear if it causes more severe illness than previous mutations and if it hinders the protection offered by vaccines.
The WHO said on Friday (3 December) that no reports of deaths linked to Omicron have yet been made, but warned it could be the cause of more than half of Europe’s coronavirus cases in the next few months due to the speed at which it has spread.
The health body also said it could slow down the global economic recovery from the pandemic.
Omicron ‘capable of causing new wave’
While no deaths have yet been linked to Omicron, scientists have warned the variant would likely be capable of causing a new wave of infections, even bigger than previously seen.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said: “We cannot exclude that this wave would be of a magnitude similar, or even larger, than previous waves.
“Although data on disease severity associated with B.1.1.529 are not yet available, a large wave of infections will be accompanied by a wave of severe cases and the subgroup cannot rule out that this may be sufficient to overwhelm NHS capacity.”
Sage scientists said it is highly likely that Omicron is being spread by extensive community transmission in South Africa, and possibly elsewhere, and it is expected it is capable of evading immunity to some extent.
The evidence comes from the number of reinfections already seen and from the mutations in the variant that are either already known to be associated with immune escape, or are found in areas that studies suggest will affect antibody binding.
However, it is still unclear to what extent protection from natural infection or vaccination will be affected, or how this may vary depending on the type of vaccine.
Sage scientists warned: “Even if there continues to be good protection against severe disease for individuals from vaccination (including boosters), any significant reduction in protection against infection could still result in a very large wave of infections.
“This would in turn lead to potentially high numbers of hospitalisations even with protection against severe disease being less affected.
“The size of this wave remains highly uncertain but may be of a scale that requires very stringent response measures to avoid unsustainable pressure on the NHS.
“If vaccine efficacy is substantially reduced, then a wave of severe disease should be expected.
“It is important to be prepared for a potentially very significant wave of infections with associated hospitalisations now, ahead of data being available.”
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