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WHO Acknowledges Uncertainty, Says Omicron Variant Is “Very High Risk”

While there is much still unknown about the Omicron variant, the World Health Organization says it poses “very high” risk due to its increased transmissibility.

Updated 11/29 at 4:55 p.m:

This morning, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a new risk assessment for the B.1.1.529 “Omicron” COVID-19 variant. The WHO said, “The overall global risk…is assessed as very high.”

In light of the Omicron variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) strengthened their recommendation that all individuals 18 and older receive an additional "booster" vaccine dose; adults are eligible for a booster shot 6 months after a regimen of Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna or 2 months after a dose of the Janssen (Johnson & Johnson) vaccine.

Using COVID-19 PCR tests, investigators can monitor target genes to determine if infection was caused by the Omicron variant. So far, it has been detected at faster rates than previous strains, indicating the Omicron variant may have a growth advantage.

Existing evidence also suggests Omicron’s risk of reinfection is higher than previous variants of concern. However, there is no evidence yet of whether Omicron causes more severe disease or decreases vaccine efficacy.

The WHO reported that numerous studies are underway to gain a better understanding of Omicron and the threat it poses. While there is much still unknown about Omicron, including whether it is more contagious, the WHO cautioned that countries with low vaccination rates may face increased strain on their healthcare systems.

The WHO made it clear they are not supporting travel bans at this time, saying that while they may slightly reduce the spread of COVID-19, they are more likely to cause panic and division and burden and “place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.”

Most of the advice from the WHO, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and other health professionals has been to adhere to tried-and-true COVID-19 prevention protocol like masking, social distancing, sanitizing, and vaccinating.

The Omicron variant was first detected by scientists in South Africa, who announced it contains approximately 50 mutations in the Spike protein. The first confirmed infection with this variant was on November 9, 2021. Since then, the number of Omicron cases are increasing in most of South Africa’s providences.