WHO says no Omicron deaths yet, as variant spreads worldwide

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The Omicron variant has been detected in 38 countries but no deaths have yet been reported, the WHO said on Friday, as authorities worldwide rushed to stem the heavily mutated Covid-19 strain’s spread amid warnings that it could damage the global economic recovery.

The United States and Australia became the latest countries to confirm locally transmitted cases of the variant, as Omicron infections pushed South Africa’s total cases past three million.

The World Health Organization has warned it could take weeks to determine how infectious the variant is, whether it causes more severe illness and how effective treatments and vaccines are against it.

“We’re going to get the answers that everybody out there needs,” WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said.

The WHO said on Friday it had still not seen any reports of deaths related to Omicron, but the new variant’s spread has led to warnings that it could cause more than half of Europe’s Covid cases in the next few months.

The new variant could also slow global economic recovery, just as the Delta strain did, International Monetary Fund chief Kristalina Georgieva said on Friday.

“Even before the arrival of this new variant, we were concerned that the recovery, while it continues, is losing somewhat momentum,” she said.

“A new variant that may spread very rapidly can dent confidence.”

A preliminary study by researchers in South Africa, where the variant was first reported on November 24, suggests it is three times more likely to cause reinfections compared to the Delta or Beta strains.

The emergence of Omicron was the “ultimate evidence” of the danger of unequal global vaccination rates, Red Cross head Francesca Rocca said.

South African doctors said there had been a spike in children under five admitted to hospital since Omicron emerged, but stressed it was too early to know if young children were particularly susceptible.

“The incidence in those under-fives is now second-highest, and second only to the incidence in those over 60,” said Wassila Jassat from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

In the US, two cases involved residents with no recent international travel history — showing Omicron is already circulating inside the country.

“This is a case of community spread,” the Hawaii Health Department said.

US President Joe Biden on Thursday unveiled his plans to battle Covid-19 during the winter, with new testing requirements for travellers and a surge in vaccination efforts.