The World Health Organisation says the Omicron COVID variant has been detected in 57 countries.
WHO Director-General, Tedros Ghebreyesus, who disclosed this on Wednesday during a virtual media briefing, advised countries to avoid “ineffective and discriminatory travel bans”.
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He said certain features of Omicron, including its global spread and large number of mutations, indicated that it could have a major impact on the course of the pandemic.
“Exactly what that impact will be is still difficult to know. We’re now starting to see a consistent picture of a rapid increase in transmission, although for now, the exact rate of increase relative to other variants remains difficult to quantify.
“In South Africa, the number of Omicron cases is increasing quickly. However, Omicron was detected when transmission of Delta was very low, so it had little competition.
“It will, therefore, be important to monitor carefully what happens around the world, to understand whether Omicron can outcompete Delta.”
He urged countries to review their national plans, accelerate vaccine coverage for at-risk populations, intensify efforts to drive transmission down and scale up surveillance, testing and sequencing.
“I’m pleased that France and Switzerland have lifted their travel bans on southern African countries, and I urge other countries to follow their lead. To France and Switzerland, merci beaucoup,” he said.
“All individuals can reduce their risk by keeping a safe distance from others, avoiding crowds, wearing a mask, cleaning your hands, and meeting outside if possible, or in a well-ventilated space indoors.
“And please, get vaccinated if you can. We can save lives from Delta right now.
“We can prevent Omicron becoming a global crisis right now. And we can prevent other variants emerging right now. This virus is changing, but our collective resolve must not,” he said.