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WHO chief scientist says COVID-19 Omicron variant ‘quite infectious,’ must not panic

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) chief scientist on Friday urged people not to panic over the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant and said it was too early to say if COVID-19 vaccines would have to be modified to fight it.

Speaking in an interview at the Reuters Next conference, Soumya Swaminathan also said it was impossible to predict if Omicron would become the dominant strain.

Read the latest updates in our dedicated coronavirus section.

Omicron has gained a foothold in Asia, Africa, the Americas, the Middle East and Europe and has reached seven of the nine provinces of South Africa, where it was first identified. Many governments have tightened travel rules to keep the variant out.

Swaminathan said that the right response was to be ready.

“How worried should we be? We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we’re in a different situation to a year ago,” she said.

“Delta accounts for 99 percent of infections around the world. This variant would have to be more transmissible to out-compete and become dominant worldwide. It is possible, but it’s not possible to predict.”

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Much remains unknown about Omicron, which has been detected in more than two dozen countries as parts of Europe grapple with a wave of infections of the more familiar Delta variant.

“We need to wait, lets hope it’s milder … but it’s too early to conclude about the variant as a whole,” Swaminathan said.

Australia became the latest country to report community transmission of the new variant, a day after it was found in five US states.

WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a United Nations briefing in Geneva earlier that vaccine makers should prepare for the likelihood of adjusting their products.

He also said the organization had not seen any reports of deaths relating to the new Omicron variant.

“I have not seen reports of Omicron-related deaths yet,” Lindmeier told reporters in Geneva.

“We’re collecting all the evidence and we will find much more evidence as we go along,” AFP reported.

Ugur Sahin, CEO of Germany’s BioNTech which makes a COVID vaccine with Pfizer, told the Reuters Next conference the company should be able to adapt the shots relatively quickly.

Sahin also said current vaccines should continue to provide protection against severe disease, despite mutations.

Takeshi Kasai, the WHO’s western Pacific director, told a media briefing that vaccines were the solution and that border controls could only buy time.

“People should not only rely on border measures. What is most important is to prepare for these variants with potential high transmissibility. So far the information available suggests we don’t have to change our approach.”

Kasai urged countries to fully vaccinate vulnerable groups and stick to preventive measures such as mask wearing and social distancing.

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UAE reports 1,796 new COVID-19 cases, no deaths

The UAE announced 1,796 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, the official Emirates News Agency reported.

This brings the current total active cases in the UAE to 17,551 and the total number of COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic to 949,384, according to data from the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA).

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The cases were determined out of 232,943 tests in the last 24 hours.

No deaths from the virus were recorded on Saturday, maintaining the total deaths caused by COVID-19 to 2,317 in the UAE.

At least 1,727 patients recovered in the previous 24 hours, bringing the total COVID-19 recoveries to 929,516.

On June 13, the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA) announced it would strictly enforce its mask rules – with penalties for those flouting the protocol – and announced it would tighten its rules on the Al Hosn green pass system amid rising coronavirus cases across the country.

NCEMA said that it has recently “monitored some behaviors that have become a danger to society and public health,” referring to people not adhering to COVID-19 precautionary and preventative measures and how it has “negatively” impacted recovery efforts.

“Negligence and recklessness in following precautionary measures, and failure in the societal role in maintaining public health and acquired immunity, has resulted in a rise in the number of infections and new waves of the virus,” the authority spokesman said in the briefing.

The authority reaffirmed the need to wear masks in closed public spaces, reiterating that it was mandatory and that not adhering to this rule would result in a fine of up to $816 (AED 3,000).

According to the World Health Organization, more than 4.1 million cases were reported globally in the last week.

It added, however, that the worldwide number of deaths remained relatively similar to the week before, at about 8,500, noting that COVID-related deaths increased in three regions: the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the Americas.

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Omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccines could increase protection as boosters: EMA

Coronavirus vaccines tweaked to include the omicron variant strain can improve protection when used as a booster, the European Medicines Agency and other global health regulators said on Friday.
Following a meeting on Thursday, the EMA said global regulators had agreed on key principles for updating COVID-19 shots to respond to emerging variants.
While the existing coronavirus vaccines continue to provide good protection against hospitalization and death, the group said, vaccine effectiveness has taken a hit as the virus has evolved.
For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.
As such, an omicron-specific or bivalent booster – meaning a vaccine that includes both the new strain and the original coronavirus strain – could “increase and extend” protection, a statement from the EMA said.
The statement refers specifically to the mRNA vaccines. Both Pfizer Inc and Moderna Inc have been testing retooled versions of their vaccines to include the omicron variant.
Vaccines which include other variants, for example the beta variant, might also be considered for use as boosters if clinical trial data demonstrate an adequate level of neutralization against omicron and other variants of concern, the statement said.
It follows guidance from the World Health Organization that omicron-specific boosters could restore protection against emerging strains of the coronavirus.
But it stops short of the position of the regulator in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which said on Thursday that it would seek the inclusion specifically of the newer BA.4 and BA.5 strains of omicron, currently driving a surge in new infections globally, in any new shots for use domestically.
On Tuesday, the head of a WHO advisory committee that has considered the modified shots said the group preferred BA.1-based boosters, arguing that the variant is more distinct and could generate a broader response than the more recently circulating subvariants.
Top US FDA official Peter Marks said in an interview that regulators from other countries were seriously considering using new boosters based on the BA.1 omicron variant that caused the massive surge in cases last winter, because those shots can be available sooner than the BA.4/5 based booster the United States plans to use.
The EMA said it would provide more details in coming days.
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Russia scraps remaining COVID-19 restrictions

Russia said on Friday it was ending all restrictions to combat the spread of COVID-19, including the requirement to wear masks, citing a steady decline in deaths from the virus.
However, it did not rule out re-introducing restrictive measures if the situation deteriorates.
Consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor said it was “suspending previously introduced restrictions, including the mask regime, a ban on public catering at night, and a number of other measures.”
For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.
It said the dynamics of the virus were consistent with global trends and 93 percent of confirmed cases were mild or asymptomatic.
Since the start of the pandemic in Russia in April 2020, over 800,000 people have died from coronavirus or causes related to COVID-19, Reuters calculations show, with the country recording over 18 million infections.
Russia was quick to develop and launch its Sputnik V vaccine when the pandemic struck but take-up was slow, with many Russians citing distrust of the authorities and fear of new medical products. About 52 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated.
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