WHO: Omicron could be milder than Delta variant

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WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 9) — Early data suggest those who get infected with the Omicron coronavirus variant may have a milder disease compared to those who catch the Delta variant, the World Health Organization said on Wednesday.

"There's also some evidence that Omicron causes milder disease than Delta, but again it's still too early to be definitive," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a virtual media briefing in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Philippines grappled with a COVID-19 surge driven by the Delta variant in August this year, overwhelming hospitals and healthcare workers. The surge prompted the government to implement the strictest quarantine restrictions to control the spread of infection.

Ghebreyesus also reiterated the preliminary finding that there may be an increased risk of reinfection with the Omicron variant, but information is still limited as of now.

WHO said countries must increase testing, sequencing, and surveillance to fully understand the heavily mutated variant's transmissibility and impact.

"Any complacency now will cost lives," Ghebreyesus said. "New data are emerging every day, but scientists need time to complete studies and interpret the results. We must be careful about drawing firm conclusions until we have a more complete picture."

WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan earlier said Omicron is "highly unlikely" to completely evade vaccine protection.

Speaking to CNN Philippines' The Final Word, Dr. Paul Offit - a member of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Vaccines Advisory Committee - said more data about the variant are expected in the following weeks, but noted that those initially available suggest that "Omicron may be less virulent than the previous variants."

He added that the most important data that should be generated is Omicron's effect on protection from vaccines. Offit said experts need to know if getting the coronavirus shot protects a person from serious illness, which has been the case for the earlier variants - and is likely for Omicron as well.

"I think what will be different about Omicron is I think you're going to be less protected against mild disease and so the question becomes if you get a booster dose that will likely increase your protection… but then the question becomes for how long," he explained.

Offit also said based on past events, the first two doses of a vaccine protect one from serious disease while the third protects one from mild disease.

An Omicron-specific vaccine will only be needed if it will be proven that currently available shots do not prevent serious infection, he added.

Omicron - or the B.1.1.529 variant - was first detected in early November in South Africa. It has been reported in 57 nations and WHO expects the number to increase.

The Philippines has not yet detected a case of Omicron, but the country remains on high alert by banning flights from over a dozen nations with local cases as a preventive measure.