Vaccines will likely protect against severe COVID-19 cases from the new omicron variant, a World Health Organization official said, seeking to ease concerns that the strain might get around the most effective tool for fighting the pandemic.
“We know that vaccines are likely to have some protection,” WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said in a press briefing. “We still need to find out if there’s any loss of protection, but we think vaccines will still protect against severe disease as they have against the other variants.”
The WHO’s statement is the latest in a series of efforts from health authorities to reassure the public on vaccines even as many questions about the new variant remain unanswered.
The companies behind the shots have roiled markets with statements that at times seemed contradictory, with Moderna Inc.’s chief executive officer saying new shots might be needed. Both the University of Oxford, which helped develop the vaccine sold by AstraZeneca PLC, and the head of BioNTech SE, Pfizer Inc.’s vaccine partner, predicted some protection against omicron from existing inoculations.
The WHO expects more data on omicron transmission within days, Maria van Kerkhove, the agency’s technical lead officer, said in the press briefing. It’s possible that the variant will prove more transmissible than previous strains of the virus, she said, and it’s unclear at this point how severe it will be.
Meanwhile, the organization’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned against a blanket travel ban, saying it won’t stop the spread of the new variant. A number of countries have restricted travel, especially from southern Africa, in response to the emergence of the new variant.
WHO officials urged people to continue to get vaccines or booster shots, saying it’s essential to fight the delta variant first in order to stop omicron too.
“Everything that we can do for delta, which is dominant worldwide, needs to be applied and strengthened for omicron,” Van Kerkhove said, adding that countries will benefit from decisions made now no matter how omicron’s trajectory unfolds.
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