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Much remains unknown about omicron, the new variant of concern designated Friday by the World Health Organization, the organization said in a statement released yesterday.

WHO is coordinating with researchers around the world to better understand the new variant, including assessments of transmissibility, severity of infection (including symptoms), performance of vaccines and diagnostic tests, and effectiveness of treatments,” the organization said in the statement.

As of this morning, the new variant has been detected in multiple countries, including Canada, and not all cases are linked to travel to Southern Africa.

Identification and detection of variants depends on genomic sequencing of virus samples. Sequencing is done on a relatively small proportion of samples among positive test results. South Africa, which first identified the new variant, has sequenced less than 1% of coronavirus samples and the U.S., which has the most reported coronavirus cases in the world, has sequenced 3.6% of its samples.

The ‘most effective steps individuals can take’

In yesterday’s statement, WHO urged individuals to:

  • keep a physical distance of at least three feet from others;
  • wear a well-fitting mask;
  • open windows to improve ventilation;
  • avoid crowded or poorly ventilated spaces;
  • keep hands clean;
  • cough or sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue; and
  • get vaccinated.

WHO called these measures “the most effective steps individuals can take to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus.”

Why omicron is a ‘variant of concern’

The decision to designate the variant as “of concern” was based on evidence presented to WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution showing that omicron has several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves, WHO said in the statement.

It is not yet clear whether omicron is more transmissible than other variants. The number of new cases has risen in South Africa, which first identified the new variant, but WHO said that could be due to other factors.

It is also not yet clear if omicron will cause more severe disease than other variants. Hospitalizations have risen in South Africa. “but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron,” the statement said. There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants, WHO said.

Preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with omicron, as compared to other variants of concern, according to the statement, but information is limited.

The effectiveness of current vaccines is also not yet assessed. “Vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease and death, including against the dominant circulating variant, Delta. Current vaccines remain effective against severe disease and death,” WHO said.

Current PCR tests continue to detect infection with omicron, WHO said.

“At the present time, WHO is coordinating with a large number of researchers around the world to better understand Omicron. Studies currently underway or underway shortly include assessments of transmissibility, severity of infection (including symptoms), performance of vaccines and diagnostic tests, and effectiveness of treatments,” the organization said.

>>>More COVID-19 coverage, data and updates

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.