WHO Still in Dark About Omicron Impact, Advises ‘Living With Covid’

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Covid-19 testing in Siem Reap on June 25, 2021, in a photo posted to the Facebook page of the Siem Reap provincial administration.

The world is facing another surge in Covid-19 due to increased travel and mobility, particularly in Europe, the World Health Organization said Friday morning, suggesting that countries stay vigilant but move toward living with the disease amid the emergence of Omicron.

Global Covid-19 infections have increased for seven consecutive weeks, said regional director Takeshi Kasai during the organization’s last regular press update for the year. Vietnam, South Korea and Laos are among the countries seeing surges in the Western Pacific.

“We can’t be complacent,” Kasai said. “It’s clear that this pandemic is far from over.”

His message, he said, was to adapt existing tools that countries have already been using and have learned from over the past two years. Death rates have been lower thanks to vaccinations and treatments, and the “red line” to avoid was overwhelming hospitals with cases, he said.

The goal can move from containment and suppression to suppression and “living with it,” he said.

“Why not move our response toward living with Covid, coping with Covid?” he said, commending Cambodia’s approach toward a reopening.

Cambodia removed quarantine for all vaccinated travelers last month, though it has temporarily closed arrivals from 10 countries in southern Africa amid the emergence of Covid-19 Omicron. The variant was first identified in South Africa.

Kasai cautioned that targeted border closures could buy time but would not prevent the spread of the disease.

“I understand people’s feelings, but it’s important to remember that even if we put the border control, the virus may still come in,” he said.

He added that the five tools available to countries were vaccines, public restrictions, treatment, surveillance and border control, he said, emphasizing the importance of vaccinations, especially for health workers and vulnerable groups. He advised “risk-based” — as opposed to “zero-risk” — measures to try to keep schools and borders open.

Regional emergency director Babatunde Olowokure added that surges were continuing to come in waves due to increased travel and mobility globally and even in highly vaccinated countries like Singapore and South Korea.

“We know that Omicron will eventually come to most countries,” Olowokure said.

But little was yet known about the variant, he said. The new variant appears to have higher transmissibility, but its severity and impact was unclear, he said.

Four countries in the region had now officially reported Omicron — Australia, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea ­— but the number of countries in which the variant was already circulating was “likely to be much higher than this,” he said.

“I urge our member states to be prepared.”

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