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The World Health Organization said Wednesday that 23 countries across the world have reported cases of the highly mutated omicron Covid-19 variant.
“At least 23 countries from five of six WHO regions have now reported cases of omicron and we expect that number to grow,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters during an update Wednesday in Geneva.
“WHO takes this development extremely seriously and so should every country. But it should not surprise us,” Tedros continued. “This is what viruses do. And it’s what this virus will continue to do, as we long as we allow it to continue spreading.”
The new number comes one day after White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said 226 cases of the variant have been detected across 20 countries. Officials have not confirmed a case in the U.S. yet.
The variant, which was reported to WHO by South Africa a week ago, has more than 30 mutations to the spike protein alone. Some of the mutations are associated with a decrease in antibody protection and higher transmission, according to the WHO.
Tedros said there is still more to learn about the new variant’s effect on transmission, the severity of disease and the effectiveness of tests, therapeutics and vaccines. Several WHO advisory groups have met in the last few days to “evaluate the emerging evidence, and prioritize the studies needed to answer these questions,” he said.
He added that the highly transmissible delta Covid-19 variant still accounts for almost all cases globally. Tedros said using the tools available to prevent transmission of delta will also stop the transmission of omicron.
“If countries and individuals don’t do what they need to do to stop transmission of delta, they won’t stop omicron either,” Tedros said.
He urged countries to bolster vaccination efforts and other prevention measures, noting that low vaccine coverage and testing in countries is a “recipe for breeding and amplifying variants.”
“We continue to urge countries to fully fund the accelerator to ensure equitable access to vaccines, tests therapeutics, all over the world,” Tedros said.
The use of blanket travel bans, however, will not prevent the transmission of omicron and are a “heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” according to Tedros.
Dozens of countries have imposed travel restrictions on southern African nations since the mutation was reported to WHO a week ago. The U.S., for instance, began restricting travel for non U.S.-citizens from South Africa and seven other countries on Monday.
Tedros said it is “deeply concerning” that Botswana and South Africa were “being penalized by others for doing the right thing.”
He called on countries to turn to “rational proportional risk reduction measures.” This includes measures screening passengers prior to traveling and or upon arrival in a country, or the application of quarantine to international travelers.