Omicron, a new strain of Covid-19, may cause milder illness, the European Medicines Agency said Thursday, as the WHO warned rich nations against a repeat of vaccine hoarding as the new strain spreads.
The tentative judgement from the European Medicines Agency comes after the WHO said this week that there was some evidence that Omicron caused less severe disease than Delta, the currently dominant variant.
The EMA echoed the findings but added that it would continue to investigate the matter.
According to Marco Cavaleri, the EMA’s head of biological health threats and vaccines strategy, Omicron cases seem to be mainly mild, however, more information is needed to determine whether Omicron’s spectrum of disease severity is different from all the variants that have been circulating so far.
Last month, a highly mutated variant of the virus was discovered in South Africa, causing global panic because there were fears it would be more contagious, cause more severe illnesses, or evade vaccines.
During his press conference on Wednesday, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated that “emerging data from South Africa suggests that Omicron reinfections are on the rise”.
Cavaleri said that early data indicated Omicron is more infectious than Delta, but the future of the dominant strain was uncertain.
Furthermore, he emphasized that better methods of prevention and treatment were available than last winter.
Pfizer and BioNTech announced Wednesday that their third dose of the vaccine had been effective against the variant, and it was developing an Omicron-specific vaccine that should be available in March.
Fears of hoarding vaccines due to Omicron Variant
The financial markets have been gripped by fears about the economic impact of the winter wave of infections hitting some wealthy countries like Germany and Britain.
On Thursday, the WHO cautioned against the vaccine supply restrictions that had begun earlier this year.
There is a risk that the global supply will again revert to high-income countries hoarding vaccines to protect (their populations) in excess as we move forward with the Omicron situation, said WHO vaccines chief Kate O’Brien.
Pfizer and BioNTech have provided data to the WHO about the booster shot, which may show that additional doses can provide additional Omicron protection, although O’Brien noted that it is yet “very early days”.
Cavaleri added that there has not been enough data collected at this point.
Later Thursday, the agency stated that Covid boosters are “safe and effective” three months after the last injection.
In the meantime, the UN health organization’s Africa branch noted that the number of new Coronavirus cases had almost doubled over the past week, to 107,000, as the new variant “is reaching more countries in Africa”.
The numbers surged by 140 % on average in the south of the continent.
In South Africa, where the new variant was discovered last month, “severe cases remain low,” the WHO said.
However, the report calls for the continent’s 1.2 billion people to be vaccinated more widely — only 7.8 % are covered by vaccines.
According to EMA figures, over 600 million doses were administered in Europe alone.