The Omicron variant of the coronavirus has been detected in 89 countries and is spreading rapidly even in places with high levels of population immu-nity, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Saturday.
The number of Covid-19 cases involving Omi-cron is doubling every 1.5 to three days in countries where there is community transmission of the vari-ant and not just people who were infected abroad, the WHO said.
Omicron’s “substantial growth advantage” over the Delta variant means it is likely to soon overtake Delta as the dominant variant in those countries, the UN health agency said.
It remains unclear if the rapid growth of Omi-cron cases is because the variant evades existing immunity, is inherently more transmissible than previous variants, or a combination of both, the WHO said.
Other major questions about Omicron remain unanswered, including how effective each of the existing Covid-19 vaccines are against it. Conclu-sive data also does not exist yet on how ill Omicron makes Covid-19 patients, the health agency said.
The WHO said on Monday the Omicron coro-navirus variant carried a very high risk of infection surges as more countries closed their borders and reported cases of the new strain.
The emergence of Omicron has also revived worries about the economic recovery from the two-year pandemic. Battered stocks and oil prices recov-ered somewhat after a day of panic last week, how-ever, as hopes grew that the variant might prove to be milder than initially feared.
The World Health Organisation advised its 194 member nations that any surge in infections could have severe consequences, but said no deaths had been linked to the new variant.
An infectious disease expert from South Africa, where scientists first identified Omicron last week, said it was too early to say whether symptoms were more severe than previous variants, but it did appear to be more transmissible.
Professor Salim Abdool Karim also said exist-ing Covid-19 vaccines are probably effective at stopping Omicron from causing severe illness. Sci-entists have said it could take weeks to understand the severity of Omicron.
Fears the new variant might be resistant to vac-cines helped wipe roughly $2 trillion off global stock markets on Friday but markets settled down again on Monday, even after Japan said it would close its borders to foreigners.
Other countries also imposed travel and other restrictions, worried that Omicron could spread fast even among people with immunity from vaccination or prior infection.
Travellers stranded at Johannesburg interna-tional airport said they felt “helpless” as flights from South Africa were cancelled.
“We don’t know what to do, we are just waiting here, we don’t know how they will help, but they just told us they can’t help us,” said Ntabiseng Kabeli, a stranded passenger from Lesotho.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Omicron’s emergence showed how “perilous and precarious” the situation was.
Portugal found 13 cases of the variant at a Lis-bon football club. Scotland and Austria also re-ported their first cases. Japan described its ban on arrivals by foreigners as precautionary.
“These are temporary, exceptional measures that we are taking for safety’s sake, until there is clearer information about the Omicron variant,” Prime Min-ister Fumio Kishida said.—AP