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The World Health Organization on Friday said the omicron Covid-19 variant has been detected in 38 countries, up from 23 two days ago, with early data suggesting the strain is more contagious than delta.
“We do see an increasing growth rate, we see increasing numbers of omicron being detected,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead said during a Q&A livestreamed on the group’s social media channels Friday. “But we have reports of omicron in 38 countries in all six WHO regions.”
“There is a suggestion that there is increased transmissibility, what we need to understand is if it’s more or less transmissible compared to delta,” Van Kerkhove said, noting that the delta variant is still dominant across the globe.
Van Kerkhove said it’s still too early to understand the severity of disease caused by omicron. Early reports of mild symptoms in some of the first cases where it was identified were based on a cluster of university students who tend to be younger and experience more mild symptoms than older adults, she said.
“There was initial reports that it tended to be more mild, but it’s really too soon,” Van Kerkhove said. “Everybody who is infected with SARS-CoV-2 regardless of what variant will always start out with a mild disease. And so maybe it will stop there with mild, some people are asymptomatic of course, but it may stop with mild disease or it may take some time.”
Van Kerkove said there are increasing hospitalizations in South Africa, but public health officials haven’t seen an increased risk of death yet, but they’re waiting on more data.
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergency program, said public health officials initially saw mild cases with the alpha and delta variants as well. It could take two weeks to see increased mortality associated with omicron if the variant does, in fact, cause more severe disease.
“It takes time unfortunately,” Ryan said. “We saw that as well in previous waves of this pandemic. When the incidence rate goes up, it takes a week or two for that to result in hospital admissions and deaths.”
Van Kerkhove cautioned there’s a reporting bias at the moment which may obscure how virulent the variant really is. Many of the people around the world who have tested positive for omicron were healthy travelers, which could explain why the symptoms reported so far are mild.
“If you’re traveling, you’re not sick or you shouldn’t be traveling if you’re sick,” Van Kerkhove said. “So there’s a bias in terms of what is being detected at the moment, but that will change over time.”