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Omicron cases 'mild' and vaccines still work: WHO official downplays variant fears
1 December 2021, 15:33
Cases of the Omicron variant of coronavirus are "mild" and vaccines don't appear to be less effective against it, a World Health Organisation (WHO) official has said.
Scientists are racing to learn more about the strain amid concerns it could evade some protection afforded by existing jabs.
Boris Johnson imposed new restrictions in response to it, imposing a mask mandate and new travel quarantine rules.
But key figures have downplayed fears, with Reuters quoting a WHO official, speaking for the institution, as saying that early assessments indicate that Omicron cases are mild.
The unnamed person also said no evidence has arisen to suggest vaccines are less effective against it, but mutations suggest it could spread quicker.
The briefing is a huge boost after a week of worry and panic that has seen countries like Israel shut borders and others impose new measures.
Boris Johnson has told shoppers and commuters to wear face masks, with 22 cases having been detected in Britain by Wednesday afternoon. It is thought the variant is spreading in the community.
Arrivals to the UK have to isolate before taking a PCR test and remain in quarantine until they get a negative test, while anyone who is a contact of an Omicron case must shut themselves away regardless of age or vaccine status.
The WHO official's briefing follows the call from BioNTech chief Ugur Sahin for people not panic over the variant, as he reiterated that he expects vaccines will still prove effective.
"Our message is: Don't freak out, the plan remains the same: Speed up the administration of a third booster shot," he told the Wall Street Journal.
"Our belief [that the vaccines still provide defence against the new variant] is rooted in science: If a virus achieves immune escape, it achieves it against antibodies, but there is the second level of immune response that protects from severe disease - the T-cells.
"Even as an escape variant, the virus will hardly be able to completely evade the T-cells."
The health secretary, Sajid Javid, played down fears the Omicron variant's spread could lead to "Plan B" measures – which could include work from home instructions and even lockdowns as a last resort – or that Christmas socialising might be hit by new restrictions.
He told LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast: "There's no need to change your plans.
"Unless they have been affected by the new rules we have put in place, so if you are asked to self-isolate, for example because you have come into contact with someone with a suspected case of this new variant, then of course your plans are going to be affected.
"Other than that, just follow the guidance."