The World Health Organization (WHO) Tuesday warned Omicron was spreading at an unprecedented rate and urged countries to act as drug maker Pfizer said its coronavirus pill was effective against the variant.
Dutch primary schools will close early as Europe battles a fresh wave of infections and hospital admissions, while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faced a major parliamentary test seeking to impose fresh Covid curbs.
Omicron, first detected by South Africa and reported to WHO on Nov 24, has a large number of mutations, setting alarm bells ringing since its discovery.
Early data suggests it can be resistant to vaccines and is more transmissible than the Delta variant, which was first identified in India and accounts for the bulk of the world’s coronavirus cases.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters the strain had been reported in 77 countries and had “probably” spread to most nations undetected “at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant”.
Although Britain on Monday confirmed what is thought to be the world’s first Omicron death, there is no proof yet that Omicron causes more severe illness.
WHO on Tuesday provided room for cautious optimism saying Africa had recorded a massive rise in cases over the past week but a lower number of deaths compared with previous waves.
But it urged countries to act swiftly to rein in transmission and protect their health systems and warned against complacency.
WHO expert Bruce Aylward strenuously warned against “jumping to a conclusion that this is a mild disease”.
“We could be setting ourselves up for a very dangerous situation,” he added.
The warning came as Pfizer on Tuesday said clinical trials of its Covid pill reduced hospital admissions and deaths among at-risk people by almost 90%.
The American drug maker said its new treatment, Paxlovid, held up against Omicron in lab-testing.
Chief executive Albert Bourla called the news a “game changer” and said he expected approval from the US medicines regulator as early as this month.
“This news provides another potentially powerful tool in our fight against the virus, including the Omicron variant,” added US President Joe Biden.
A real-world study from South Africa has showed two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was 70% effective in stopping severe illness from Omicron.
Researchers called the results encouraging, though it represented a drop compared to earlier strains, underlining the unpredictability of Covid-19 since it emerged in China in 2019.
And WHO added that low vaccination rates in regions including Africa – where Omicron was first detected – would provide breeding grounds for new variants.
It estimated it will take Africa until May 2022 to have 40% vaccination coverage and until August 2024 to reach 70% as countries with plentiful vaccine supplies raced to administer third doses to beat Omicron.
Dutch schools to close
Europe is the world’s coronavirus hotspot, recording 62% of the world’s total Covid cases in the past seven days, while the five countries with the world’s highest infection rates are all European.
The Netherlands followed other European nations in reintroducing restrictions on Tuesday as Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced primary schools will shut next week and a night-time lockdown will be extended amid Omicron fears.
Schools will close from Dec 20 instead of on Dec 25 due to concerns that children, among whom Covid-19 rates are the highest, could infect older relatives.
“This is obviously not the joyful message we had hoped for as Christmas approaches. But it’s not a surprise,” Rutte said.
France on Tuesday registered 63,405 new coronavirus cases – its highest daily total since April – even with more than 77% of its population having had at least one vaccine jab.
In neighbouring Britain, the ruling Conservative government on Tuesday suffered a major parliamentary rebellion as almost 100 of its MPs rejected new coronavirus restrictions as the country responds to Omicron.
Boris Johnson’s administration will introduce new rules on mask-wearing, daily testing to avoid isolation and vaccine passes for certain settings in England.
But many MPs from his own party believe the measures – which only passed with opposition support – are excessive and undermine basic freedoms.
Scientists have predicted the true number already infected with Omicron in Britain could be as high as 200,000 a day, while the English Premier League reported a record caseload that threatened further disruption to fixtures.
According to an AFP tally from official sources as of 1100 GMT on Tuesday, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused at least 5,311,914 deaths and 270,068,257 infections.
Many investors fear that the Omicron variant could throw the global economic recovery into jeopardy.