The Omicron variant of COVID-19 is causing concern around the world, and the UK has taken precautionary measures to try and stop it from spreading. The Government has imposed compulsory mask-wearing in England in shops and on public transport, as well as tightening international travel restrictions and self-isolation rules. Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said that in two weeks more will be known about Omicron to help leaders determine how big a threat the variant will be. BioNTech chief executive Ugur Sahin has urged people not to “freak out” this week, but warned the only concern should be for those who are unvaccinated.
He said: “The only thing that worries me at the moment is the fact that there are people that have not been vaccinated at all.”
The fresh concerns come as the UK continues its booster jab programme.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced yesterday that the Government aims to have all adults offered a booster vaccine by the end of January.
Mr Javid told BBC Breakfast the vaccination programme needed to deliver one million more jabs a week to reach the Government’s target and said more volunteers were needed.
However, the WHO’s chief scientist, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, warned in August that the emphasis on booster jabs on rich countries while poorer countries still have low inoculation statistics could lead to more variants.
She said at the time: “I’m afraid that this will only lead to more variants. And perhaps we’re heading into even more dire situations.”
This is because research showed the virus is primarily circulating in unvaccinated people, not in immunised ones.
The more the virus circulates, the more it mutates and the more likely a new variant is to emerge.
Omicron is believed to have originated in either South Africa or Botswana, both countries with low vaccination rates.
As of Thursday, November 25, South Africa had fully vaccinated 23.51 percent of its population – the figure in Botswana is just 19.58 percent.
Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme also said the focus should be on getting jabs to unvaccinated people around the world.
He added: “If we think about this in terms of an analogy, we’re planning to hand out extra life jackets to people who already have life jackets, while we’re leaving other people to drown without a single life jacket.”
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Francois Venter, a researcher at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said “I told you so” in an interview with the New York Times earlier this month, referring to warnings from African researchers that delaying vaccinations there risked the emergence of new variants.
He added: “It feels like these rich countries have learned absolutely nothing in terms of support.”
Many experts warned in recent months that inequality of vaccine distribution could result in a new variant.
Good news has come out of South Africa, however, as the WHO and coronavirus experts are increasingly convinced the new Omicron variant is “mild” and has, so far, not led to a jump in Covid death rates anywhere in southern Africa.
Dr Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, said the reaction to impose a travel ban was “medically seen, not justified.”
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She added: “Looking at the mildness of the symptoms we are seeing, currently there is no reason for panicking as we don’t see any severely ill patients.”
South Africa’s health minister Joe Phaahla also said the majority of cases of Omicron seen by doctors in his country have been “mild”.
Asked what he knows about how unwell people are who have it, Dr Phaahla said: “It is still too early at this stage.”
He added he has heard from GPs that the “majority of the people they’ve been seeing are mild.”
He continued: “Our clinicians have not witnessed severe illness. Part of it may be because the majority of those who are positive are young people.”
It is clear though that the vaccine is offering protection.
Dr Wassila Jassat from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said that in the South African city of Tshwane, where Omicron was detected, 87 percent of hospital admissions were among unvaccinated patients.