It comes as a further 75 cases of omicron were identified in England, the UK Health Security Agency said on Friday night. This brings the total number of cases in England to 104, with 150 cases in the UK overall.
The United States and Australia are among the latest countries confirming new cases of the omicron variant. It comes as South Africa’s total infections pushed past three million as the new variant continues to spread.
Dr Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who first spotted omicron, said patients seen so far had “extremely mild symptoms” – but WHO warned it could take weeks to determine how infectious the variant is, whether it leads to more severe illness and how effective current vaccines are against it.
“We’re going to get the answers that everybody out there needs,” the WHO emergencies director, Michael Ryan, said.
The WHO said on Friday it had still not seen any reports of deaths related to omicron, but the new variant’s spread has led to warnings that it could cause more than half of Europe’s covid cases in the next few months.
Early data reported by scientists in South Africa suggests that omicron may evade some immunity to Covid-19 – but experts caution that the analysis is not definitive. Top WHO scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan said the world should not panic about the new variant but it should be prepared.
Speaking at the Reuters NEXT conference, she said omicron could become the dominant coronavirus strain. “How worried should we be? We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we’re in a different situation to a year ago,” she said.
WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan said the world currently had “highly effective vaccines” against Covid-19, and the focus should be on distributing them more widely. He said there was no evidence to back changing these jabs to tailor them to the new omicron variant.
Uğur Şahin, the CEO of BioNTech, which makes the Covid vaccine with Pfizer, said the company should be able to adapt the shots relatively quickly if needed, however Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel said this week that a new omicron-specific vaccine could take months to develop and ship globally.
Cases of the omicron variant have been identified in the east Midlands, east of England London, north-east, north-west, south-east, south-west and West Midlands. There were warnings of a “small amount” of community transmission as not all the new cases were linked to travel.
Australia on Friday identified three students in Sydney who had tested positive for the variant, while in the US six more states reported cases of omicron.
Canada has discovered a total of 15 cases of the new omicron variant with the chief public health officer, Theresa Tam, announcing that 11 omicron cases, involved people who had recently travelled abroad.