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WHO’s Science in 5 on COVID-19: Why Are Experts Concerned About Omicron?

January 24, 2022

We’re talking about Omicron today. If it is a less severe variant, why are people still ending up in hospitals and why is it still killing people? And also, if it is this transmissible, can we really protect ourselves?


We are certainly seeing with Omicron that there is a significant growth advantage compared to other variants of concern. Omicron is overtaking Delta in terms of circulation, and it is very efficiently transmitted between people. It doesn’t mean that everybody will eventually get Omicron, but we certainly are seeing high cases and surges of cases around the world. This is putting a significant burden on our health care systems, which are already significantly overburdened given that we’re entering into the third year of this pandemic. And if people can’t receive the proper care that they need, then more people will end up with severe disease and dying, and that’s something we want to prevent. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody will get Omicron. This is why we, as WHO, are working with partners around the world to have a comprehensive strategy to reduce your exposure and reduce the opportunities for you to get infected.


First and foremost, we know that vaccination is incredibly protective against severe disease and death, but it also does prevent some infections and some onward transmission. But it’s not perfect in terms of preventing infections and transmission. This is why we also recommend making sure people protect themselves against exposure. Physical distancing, wearing of a well-fitted mask over your nose and mouth, making sure that you have clean hands, avoiding crowds, working from home if you can, getting tested and making sure that you seek appropriate care where needed. All of those measures, this layered approach, are ways in which you can keep yourself safe and also protect yourself from getting infected and passing the virus to somebody else.


Why it’s important to reduce transmission of Omicron.


It’s important that we reduce transmission of Omicron for a number of reasons. First, we want to prevent people from getting infected because there is a risk that you can develop severe disease. There are ways in which we can prevent that, but you are still at a risk of developing disease. And if you have underlying conditions or have an advanced age, if you’re not vaccinated, you could develop severe disease. Your risk is higher of developing severe disease.


The second reason is that we don’t understand completely the impact of post-COVID condition or long COVID. So people who are infected with this virus have a risk of developing longer-term consequences, which we call post-COVID condition. And we really are only beginning to understand this. So there’s a lot to learn about this and your risk of developing post-COVID condition, of course, is dependent on your risk of getting infected in the first place. So you want to prevent that.


Third, is that getting infected and having a huge case burden, this surge of cases that we are seeing with Omicron significantly burdens our health systems as well as other essential services that are operating. The large number of cases are really making it difficult for hospitals to operate, for services to be online, you know, public transportation, making sure we have groceries in our grocery store, schools, et cetera.


And lastly, the more this virus circulates, the more opportunities it has to change. So this virus is circulating at an incredibly intense level around the world for a number of reasons. But the more the virus circulates, the more opportunities the virus has to change. Omicron will not be the last variant that you will hear us discuss, and the possibility of future emergence of variants of concern is very real. And more variants that emerge, we don’t understand what those the properties of those variants may be. Certainly, they will be more transmissible because they will need to overtake variants that are currently circulating. They could become more or less severe, but they could also have properties of immune escape. So we want to reduce the risk of future emergence of variants of concern.