WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus comments come shortly after preliminary data out of South Africa showed that omicron appears to cause less severe disease than previous versions of the virus. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

THE head of the World Health Organization on Tuesday warned the globe against underestimating the omicron variant, saying it’s moving faster than any previous COVID-19 strain.

 “Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press briefing. “We’re concerned that people are dismissing omicron as mild. Surely, we have learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril.”

Tedros said that while the variant may cause less severe disease, its high transmissibility might mean that “the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems.”

And even if the proportion of people hospitalized with severe disease is smaller than with previous strains, the large number of infections means that more deaths and more hospitalizations can be expected.

The comments come shortly after preliminary data out of South Africa showed that omicron appears to cause less severe disease than previous versions of the virus but also decreases the protection offered by two doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

While the study showed that omicron decreases the protection offered by two doses for both symptomatic infection and hospitalization, Pfizer has said that a third dose of its vaccine appears to produce levels of omicron-fighting antibodies similar to what just two doses of the vaccine produced against the original coronavirus strain.

WHO has said that booster shots are probably not the answer to omicron but acknowledged they could be needed in the future.

The group on Tuesday said that boosters could be especially important for those at highest risk of severe disease death, but members warned that giving booster shots to people who have a low risk of developing severe disease “endangers the lives of those at high risk who are still waiting for their primary doses because of supply constraints.”

“It’s really quite simple: The priority in every country and globally must be to protect the least protected, not the most protected,” Tedros said.

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