'The sky isn't falling in' – WHO's Dr Mike Ryan urges calm around new Covid variant

'The sky isn't falling in' – WHO's Dr Mike Ryan urges calm around new Covid variant

WHO Health Emergencies Programme director Dr Mike Ryan said people needed to trust that health officials would inform the public if and when there was a significant change in risk. File picture: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

The head of the Word Health Organisation's Health Emergencies Programme has urged people to continue to adhere to public health guidelines while health officials carry out assessments on the threat posed by the new variant of Covid-19.

Though early evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection compared to other highly transmissible variants, Dr Mike Ryan said people needed to trust that health officials would inform the public if and when there was a significant change in risk and warned against "knee-jerk responses."

“This happens, viruses evolve and we pick up variations," Dr Ryan said. "It is not the end of the world, the sky is not falling in."

Dr Ryan urged people to continue to adhere to guidelines and to avail of vaccinations while global health officials wait for data on the B.1.1.529, or Omicron, variant.

"There is this idea that we are just waiting for the next variant, and I don’t want people to spend their lives worrying about that every day," he said. 

Scientists need to worry about that, and we need to characterise those risks, and you need to trust that we will tell you if there is a significant change in risk.

Dr Ryan said it was important for people to remain "open and focused."

“We’ve seen in the past, the minute there’s any kind of mention of any kind of variation and everyone is closing borders and restricting travel,” he said.

Dr Ryan went on to commend the health officials in South Africa who flagged the new variant as one of potential concern.

Vaccine inequality factor in variant's emergence 

Meanwhile, a leading South African virologist has said global vaccine inequality was always likely to lead to the emergence of further Covid-19 variants.

Prof Richard Lessells of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa was one of those who first sounded the alarm over the new variant.

He said experts began looking into the matter after a resurgence of cases in some more densely populated of the country over the last couple of weeks. 

“We saw some cluster outbreaks in universities and other educational institutions," he said.

"What we then noticed was, in one of the diagnostic PCR tests, there was a signal that there was something different about the virus."

Travel bans

Prof Lessells said he and his colleagues "put out the alert very early on" but that southern African states were "now being punished for this openness and transparency in terms of these travel restrictions".

Earlier on Friday evening, following a recommendation from the European Commission, all the EU's 27 member states agreed to temporarily suspend travel from southern African countries affected by the variant.

However, Prof Lessells told RTÉ's Drivetime that the new measures may not be necessary or effective.

"We’ve seen before that by the time you put these travel bans in, it has already moved to other countries and finds its way all around the world," he said. 

Alluding to addresses given on this afternoon by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, and British secretary of state for health Sajid Javid, Dr Lessells said political leaders needed to follow through on commitments aimed at ending vaccine inequality. 

Professor Richard Lessells of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Picture: Centre for Epidemic Response & Innovation/ Youtube
Professor Richard Lessells of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Picture: Centre for Epidemic Response & Innovation/ Youtube

"When they make these statements they don’t talk about the support they are going to give to Africa to help us control the pandemic here."

Prof Lessells said there was still a huge number of vulnerable people in Africa who had not even received a first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. 

If we continue to leave parts of the world like Africa behind in terms of vaccines, not only do we see the emergence of these variants, but we leave chunks of the population unprotected by vaccines that could save their lives.

"We’ve warned continuously and we get the same talks and commitments that are not delivered on. I find that increasingly upsetting that the approach when these things happen is narrow and not the global approach needed to deal with the pandemic."

Later in the interview, Prof Lessells warned that there were some early indicators that the B.1.1.529 variant, now named the 'Omicron' variant, may be able "to evade parts of the immune protection either from vaccines or from a previous infection".

"A lot of mutations that are common with other variants of concern, Alpha, Beta, Delta – we understand those and how they affect the virus," he said. 

"This could be a variant that could be more transmissible with stronger ability to evade parts of the immune response. tTat’s what concerned us and made us raise the alert."

Signals of reinfections

On the ground, Prof Lessells said he and his colleagues had also seen signals of reinfections in people who had previously contracted Covid-19. 

"The number of reinfections may be going up, meaning people who had a previous infection are getting reinfected with what we assume is the new variant."

He said some of the infections reported had occurred in fully vaccinated individuals.

"We need to get a clear handle on that data," he said. 

"The key thing is going to be understanding whether it causes mild infection, or whether we start to see severe disease and hospitalisations in people that have been fully vaccinated. 

"Unfortunately, it will take a bit of time to understand that."

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