WHO says no Omicron deaths yet, as variant spreads worldwide

The Omicron variant has been detected in 38 countries but no deaths have yet been reported, the WHO said on Friday (Dec. 3), as authorities worldwide rushed to stem the spread of the heavily mutated COVID-19 strain.

The United States and Australia became the latest countries to confirm their first locally transmitted cases of the variant, as the number of Omicron infections from a Christmas party in Norway rose to 13.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned it could take weeks to determine how infectious the variant is, whether it causes more severe illness and how effective current treatments and vaccines are against it.

“We’re going to get the answers that everybody out there needs,” 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 cast recovery into doubt and led to warnings that it could cause more than half of Europe’s COVID cases in the next few months.

A preliminary study by researchers in South Africa, where the new variant was first reported on November 24, suggests the strain is three times more likely to cause reinfections compared to the Delta or Beta strains.

Doctors said there had been a spike in the number of children under five admitted to hospital since Omicron emerged, but stressed it was too early to know if young children were particularly susceptible.

“The incidence in those under-fives is now second-highest, and second only to the incidence in those over 60,” Wassila Jassat from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said.

In the United States, two cases involved residents with no recent international travel history — showing that Omicron is already circulating inside the country.

“This is a case of community spread,” the Hawaii Health Department confirmed.

US President Joe Biden on Thursday unveiled his plans to battle COVID-19 during the winter, with new testing requirements for travellers and a surge in vaccination efforts. (AFP)