MANILA – The World Health Organization (WHO) has admitted that it is still too early to conclude that the omicron variant causes only mild disease as information about the latest variant of concern trickles in by the day.
WHO Technical Lead for COVID-19 Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, in an online forum, explained that a person infected with the omicron variant could have the full spectrum of disease – from asymptomatic and mild to severe or even death.
“We do have some deaths associated with Omicron and that’s what we expected because omicron will circulate among the different populations,” Van Kerkhove said.
The official added that the same risk factors for severe disease and death apply for the elderly, people with underlying conditions, and those who are unvaccinated.
She cautioned those dismissing the mild effects of omicron, noting that even if it does cause more mild disease the public should not forget that the more it spreads, the greater opportunity the virus has to change and potentially infect more people.
“With increased transmissibility means you’re going to have more cases. More cases mean more hospitalizations, which means already overburdened health care systems will continue to be overburdened and some will fail," she said.
"So some people will not get the care that they need because it’s two years into a global pandemic and if a system is overburdened, people will die," she added.
The omicron, a variant of concern, has so far been recorded by at least 77 countries.
The Philippines confirmed its first two cases of the omicron variant on Wednesday. It now joins Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia in Southeast Asia where cases caused by the variant of concern have been confirmed.
The WHO believes the variant may already be present in other countries but have yet to confirm it due to the lack of sequencing capabilities.
As preliminary data suggests that omicron may be more transmissible than the globally predominant delta variant, the WHO says it has “not changed the game.”
“The virus has got a bit fitter, a bit faster. We need to up our performance collectively to meet that challenge. Omicron doesn’t fundamentally change the nature of the challenge we face,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO Executive Director for Health Emergencies Program.
2022: End of the pandemic?
As the pandemic enters its third year, many believe that the virus will go on to become endemic in many countries, an idea the WHO also subscribes to. However, even if it does become endemic, Dr. Van Kerkhove said “this doesn’t mean that the virus will not still be dangerous and take the lives of our loved ones.”
But she added 2022 may also be the year that the pandemic finally ends.
“2022 is the year we can end the COVID-19 pandemic. We have tools now that can take the severe spectrum of disease out. We can reduce morbidity, hospitalization, severe disease those needing ICU. We can take the death out of COVID-19. And we can also reduce the spread.”
The WHO advised governments to strongly support their communities and get the health systems ready as omicron continues to spread globally. This in order minimize the devastating impacts on countries in the wake of omicron.
The challenge is greater now with the holidays and New Year Celebrations spurring greater mobility and social mixing. But the world is said to be in a much better position now than it was a year ago.
With the availability of vaccines and stronger health protocols which have been proven to be greatly effective in preventing transmissions, the choice is now upon every individual on whether they will actually contribute to the global solution or be part of the reason why the pandemic will drag on.