Covid: Omicron spreading at unprecedented rate, WHO says

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A health worker fills up a syringe with a Covid vaccine dose in Johannesburg on December 8, 2021.Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The Omicron variant was first identified by South Africa

The new coronavirus variant Omicron is spreading across the globe at an unprecedented rate, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned.

Cases of the heavily mutated variant have been confirmed in 77 countries.

But at a press conference, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was probably in many others that had yet to detect it.

Dr Tedros said he was concerned that not enough was being done to tackle the variant.

"Surely, we have learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril. Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems," he said.

The WHO's latest data suggests the variant - first detected in South Africa in November - can better evade existing vaccines and carries a higher risk of re-infection, leading the organisation to say the level of risk remains very high.

A number of countries have introduced travel bans affecting South Africa and its neighbours following the emergence of Omicron, but this has failed to stop it from spreading around the world.

In other developments

  • More than 800,000 Americans have now died from the coronavirus - the highest recorded national death toll from the global pandemic
  • UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson won backing for Covid passes in England, despite the biggest revolt by members of his own party since he became PM
  • The UK government also announced on Tuesday that all 11 countries on its travel red list would be taken off, with Health Secretary Sajid Javid saying the Omicron variant had spread so widely the rules no longer had much purpose
  • Italy has extended a state of emergency until 31 March 2022, citing concerns over Omicron. The measures, which were due to expire at the end of December, give the government more power to limit travel and public gatherings
  • The Netherlands says it will close primary schools a week before the Christmas holidays are due to start, in a pre-emptive bid to tackle infections
  • Norway has announced a ban on serving alcohol in bars and restaurants, among other measures

In Tuesday's news conference, Dr Tedros reiterated concerns about vaccine inequity, as some countries accelerate rollouts of a booster shot in response to Omicron.

Recent studies of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine showed it produced far fewer neutralising antibodies against Omicron than against the original strain, but that this deficit could be reversed by a third, booster, jab.

Media caption,
What we know about Omicron and its impact on Africa

Dr Tedros said boosters could play an important role in curbing the spread of Covid-19, but that it was "a question of prioritisation".

"The order matters. Giving boosters to groups at low risk of severe disease or death simply endangers the lives of those at high risk who are still waiting for their primary doses because of supply constraints," he said.

Supplies to the global vaccine-sharing programme Covax have increased in recent months.

However, world health officials fear a shortfall of tens of millions of doses - like the one which occurred in the middle of this year when India suspended its vaccine exports - could happen again.

In poorer countries, some vulnerable people are yet to receive a single dose.

Global vaccine rollout

Scroll table
World
60
11,833,638,209
China
87
3,381,314,000
India
64
1,933,706,281
US
67
587,360,320
Brazil
78
441,054,017
Indonesia
61
401,308,016
Japan
81
280,674,544
Bangladesh
71
261,364,230
Pakistan
55
249,380,176
Vietnam
81
220,779,518
Mexico
61
206,941,649
Germany
77
179,988,058
Russia
51
167,125,605
Philippines
64
151,760,837
Iran
68
149,903,496
Turkey
62
147,734,958
France
78
144,497,698
UK
73
143,062,369
Italy
79
137,787,967
Thailand
75
136,981,091
South Korea
87
125,537,663
Argentina
82
102,801,138
Spain
87
94,734,966
Canada
82
85,441,862
Colombia
70
83,585,958
Egypt
33
82,907,695
Peru
82
74,987,855
Malaysia
83
70,939,755
Saudi Arabia
70
65,362,940
Australia
84
57,642,872
Myanmar
44
56,989,806
Chile
91
56,137,553
Taiwan
80
55,072,565
Morocco
63
54,595,032
Poland
60
54,499,346
Uzbekistan
44
50,434,421
Nigeria
8
43,994,555
Nepal
67
42,916,756
Cambodia
84
39,658,990
Sri Lanka
67
39,545,641
Venezuela
50
37,860,994
Cuba
88
37,038,176
South Africa
31
36,063,285
Ecuador
78
34,809,185
Netherlands
72
34,345,860
Ukraine
35
31,668,577
Mozambique
44
31,616,078
Ethiopia
18
29,373,478
Belgium
79
25,370,358
United Arab Emirates
97
24,874,376
Portugal
87
23,889,918
Sweden
75
22,446,165
Rwanda
64
21,917,222
Uganda
23
21,044,430
Greece
74
21,017,697
Kazakhstan
49
20,918,681
Angola
19
18,431,807
Austria
73
18,336,033
Iraq
18
18,279,217
Kenya
17
18,246,213
Israel
66
18,156,155
Czech Republic
64
17,635,168
Guatemala
34
17,435,586
Hong Kong
84
16,959,543
Romania
42
16,812,990
Hungary
64
16,530,488
Ghana
20
16,122,862
Switzerland
69
15,720,430
Dominican Republic
55
15,663,980
Algeria
15
15,205,854
Singapore
91
14,122,714
Honduras
54
13,927,995
Azerbaijan
47
13,723,446
Bolivia
50
13,644,008
Denmark
83
13,223,265
Tunisia
53
13,164,136
Belarus
64
12,807,687
Tajikistan
51
12,504,152
Ivory Coast
20
12,387,947
Finland
78
12,044,032
Zimbabwe
30
11,742,863
Norway
74
11,324,835
New Zealand
80
11,085,963
Costa Rica
81
11,017,624
Ireland
81
10,931,230
Laos
68
10,862,186
El Salvador
66
10,819,940
Nicaragua
72
10,561,352
Jordan
44
9,938,176
Paraguay
47
8,765,455
Serbia
48
8,529,217
Uruguay
83
8,399,971
Panama
71
8,216,856
Kuwait
76
8,022,755
Tanzania
6
7,967,468
Turkmenistan
48
7,140,000
Sudan
8
7,096,087
Oman
59
7,087,785
Slovakia
51
7,072,261
Qatar
89
6,885,951
Guinea
19
6,127,699
Afghanistan
12
6,118,557
Lebanon
35
5,632,093
Mongolia
65
5,492,919
Croatia
55
5,252,971
Zambia
17
5,251,671
Lithuania
70
4,485,173
Bulgaria
30
4,399,112
Syria
9
3,801,752
Palestinian Territories
34
3,721,894
Benin
21
3,619,590
Libya
16
3,460,229
Bahrain
70
3,444,799
Togo
18
3,290,821
Kyrgyzstan
20
3,103,935
Slovenia
59
2,993,761
Burkina Faso
7
2,938,655
Sierra Leone
18
2,930,408
Georgia
32
2,893,850
Latvia
70
2,890,548
Albania
43
2,840,948
Somalia
9
2,712,296
Mauritius
76
2,698,115
Niger
6
2,694,418
Mauritania
23
2,650,000
Senegal
6
2,523,856
DR Congo
1
2,431,360
Madagascar
4
2,369,775
Chad
12
2,352,921
Botswana
56
2,330,589
Malawi
6
2,166,402
Armenia
33
2,149,195
Moldova
26
2,148,116
Mali
5
2,115,108
Liberia
28
1,996,703
Estonia
64
1,990,134
Bosnia and Herzegovina
26
1,924,950
Bhutan
86
1,908,189
North Macedonia
40
1,848,141
Cameroon
4
1,836,573
Kosovo
46
1,829,189
Cyprus
72
1,784,616
Trinidad and Tobago
51
1,563,433
Timor-Leste
49
1,547,717
Fiji
70
1,469,149
Jamaica
23
1,437,876
Macau
88
1,412,074
Malta
91
1,299,815
Luxembourg
73
1,296,948
Central African Republic
21
1,185,512
Brunei
94
1,149,676
Maldives
71
942,138
Lesotho
34
933,825
Guyana
46
905,748
Yemen
1
836,455
Namibia
16
834,756
Congo
12
830,379
Iceland
79
805,469
Cape Verde
55
762,486
South Sudan
6
730,047
Gambia
14
720,000
Montenegro
45
673,785
Comoros
34
642,520
Papua New Guinea
3
587,340
Guinea-Bissau
17
562,620
Gabon
11
558,456
Eswatini
29
535,393
Suriname
40
505,699
Samoa
93
482,765
Equatorial Guinea
15
479,991
Belize
52
475,163
Solomon Islands
24
452,002
Bahamas
40
340,866
Barbados
53
315,193
Vanuatu
38
301,000
Haiti
1
280,729
Jersey
80
234,363
Sao Tome and Principe
39
208,657
Seychelles
81
201,121
Djibouti
13
191,649
Tonga
68
190,474
Isle of Man
78
189,681
Guernsey
81
155,684
Andorra
69
152,694
Kiribati
50
147,497
Cayman Islands
89
144,209
Bermuda
77
131,612
Antigua and Barbuda
62
125,605
Saint Lucia
29
120,643
Gibraltar
123
119,855
Faroe Islands
83
103,894
Grenada
34
88,604
Greenland
68
79,745
St Vincent and the Grenadines
27
70,847
Liechtenstein
69
70,683
Turks and Caicos Islands
76
69,465
San Marino
69
69,259
Dominica
42
66,709
Monaco
65
65,140
Saint Kitts and Nevis
49
60,467
British Virgin Islands
59
40,969
Cook Islands
84
39,596
Anguilla
66
23,601
Nauru
79
22,976
Burundi
0.1052
15,311
Tuvalu
52
12,528
Saint Helena
58
7,892
Falkland Islands
50
4,407
Montserrat
37
4,255
Niue
88
4,161
Tokelau
71
1,936
Pitcairn
100
94
British Indian Ocean Territory
0
0
Eritrea
0
0
North Korea
0
0
South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
0
0
Vatican
0
0

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