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Omicron coronavirus variant poses ‘very high’ global risk, WHO warns

The United States and several other countries imposed travel restrictions on South Africa and other African countries after the omicron variant was discovered. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

The World Health Organization is warning countries that the omicron coronavirus variant poses “very high” global risk — and is likely to spread internationally.

“The likelihood of potential further spread of Omicron at the global level is high,” the WHO said Sunday in a preliminary technical brief. It recommended that governments worldwide enhance their ability to sequence coronavirus variants, report any local cases of omicron to the global health body and speed up their vaccination drives.

The newly identified omicron variant has 26 to 32 spike mutations, the WHO brief states, “some of which are concerning” in that they could make it more transmissible and better able to evade the body’s immune defenses.

[What to know about the omicron variant of the coronavirus]

“Depending on these characteristics, there could be future surges of COVID-19, which could have severe consequences, depending on a number of factors including where surges may take place,” the report says. “The overall global risk related to [omicron] is assessed as very high.” It added that “evidence for this assessment contains considerable uncertainty” and is subject to change.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, called for a new international accord on tackling pandemics on Nov. 29. (Video: World Health Organization via Storyful)

The WHO recommends several actions that its member states should immediately take. Some are new, such as guidance on the marker that can be used to detect the newest variant. Some are consistent with well-known measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, such as advice for governments to encourage people to wear masks, keep a safe distance from one another and avoid crowds to limit the spread of the virus.

As some governments have shut down borders and others are reinforcing public health rules, officials around the world stressed that the measures are designed to buy time to learn more about how the omicron variant spreads, what symptoms it causes and how it reacts to existing coronavirus vaccines. The Biden administration is encouraging more people to seek out booster doses to bolster their immunity to the coronavirus as the world awaits answers.

Read more:

Biden administration focuses on booster shots as best strategy against new coronavirus variant

Omicron variant now in North America as first cases found in Canada

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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