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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)
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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.

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