WHO calls for a balanced response to a new variant of the virus

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The World Health Organization has called for a balanced global response to the variant coronavirus Omicron, saying countries that report cases of the new strain should not be penalized because the South African scientists behind the his discovery are preparing to ship samples to laboratories around the world.

The discovery of a new variant of the highly mutated coronavirus in Botswana earlier this month has alarmed global health officials as it appears to be causing an increase in cases in South Africa. The so-called Omicron variant has preliminary characteristics that suggest it is capable of re-infecting patients and evading vaccines. It is not yet known if this worsens the symptoms.

A number of countries have imposed severe travel restrictions on the southern African region. Switzerland has also restricted travel from Israel, Hong Kong and Belgium, where two cases of the variant have been confirmed.

Stock markets fell on Friday as investors grappled with the possibility that much of the progress made in recovering from the pandemic could be reversed.

“We have countries reporting this information and we don’t want them to be further stigmatized,” Maria Van Kerkhove, COVID-19 technical manager at the WHO, told the Financial Times. “There has to be a balance in the response.

When asked if the travel bans were justified, Van Kerkhove said countries should increase surveillance of this variant and others, increase testing capacity and perform “smart sequencing” which was “more representative. geographically, covering more countries and strategically testing, not only more, but strategically “locations.

“We need people to have a measured approach to risk,” she said. “Delta is [still] circulate around the world and kill people all over the world. We cannot forget how many people are infected with Delta. “

Van Kerkhove said that if global access to vaccines had been more equal, “we would be in a very different epidemiological situation.[al] and the economic situation in the world. You would have the poor and the vulnerable protected, fewer deaths ”.

The WHO took the unusual step of saying the Omicron variant was “of concern” on Friday, skipping the intermediate step “of interest”. This decision has limited practical implications, but it acts as a signal to the world that the problem is serious.

Scientists at the WHO Technical Advisory Group on Vaccine Evolution had debated whether to designate it as a “variant of interest” first, but decided to give it the highest designation after agreeing that the slow responses at earlier key moments in the pandemic had been disastrous, according to people familiar with what has been said.

Tulio de Oliveira, one of the scientists behind Omicron’s discovery and head of South Africa’s Center for Outbreak Response and Innovation, said the country had been “penalized with the hoarding of vaccines, travel bans and discriminated against since the discovery of the beta [variant] and now the Omicron ”.

“If this continues, we risk that many countries will stop reporting new variants and the world is at risk of going back to the start of the pandemic,” he told the FT.

De Oliveira said he had received requests from the US National Institutes of Health, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, the UK Health Security Agency and Porton Down Laboratories to share the virus stock. .

“We will do the same thing we did with Beta, which is send a stockpile of viruses to all the major biosafety agencies around the world.”

“We have always been very collaborative with all the major security agencies around the world so that key questions can be answered as quickly as possible,” he said. “We do not send samples to private companies but work through our government with other government biosafety organizations.”

Van Kerkhove said information on vaccines and immune responses was expected in two to three weeks at the earliest © AFP via Getty Images

Van Kerkhove said Omicron appeared to display a “growth advantage” because the indirect measure to detect it – a gene missing in PCR tests – was increasingly present in augmentation cases.

It would not give a total estimate of the cases detected.

She said it was not known where the variant came from, but one of the hypotheses considered suggested that it may have come from an infected immunocompromised patient who could not completely clear the virus and in whom the virus. had replied for a significant period of time.

Van Kerkhove stressed that the WHO does not want people to panic and that “there are already sharing agreements in place where the virus can be shared, so scientists can collaborate in real time” to study the effect. vaccines and immune responses. Results were expected in two to three weeks at the earliest, she said.

Van Kerkhove said it “could be” a time in December 2019 / January 2020, when the world first learned of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China.

“South Africa presented to [the WHO] this week. We acted quickly, ”she said. “No regrets.”


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