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WHO representative to Russia urges not to panic over omicron variant of coronavirus

MOSCOW, November 28. /TASS/. WHO Representative to Russia Melita Vujnovic sees no grounds to panic over the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus, because there is no information at the moment about the degree of protection that vaccines can offer against this strain.

"It seems to me there should be no panic, because we don’t know yet whether <…> [the virus] can bypass the protective shield created by the vaccine, or to what degree its efficiency will be reduced," she said.

"There have been a theory that it [the omicron variant] can be more contagious [than other coronavirus strains]," she said, adding that scientists should wait and see how the new variant spreads.

"The beta variant was highly contagious as well," she said, referring to the beta strain, which was at the top of public and scientific concerns in the beginning of the year. However, it was the faster-spreading delta variant that eventually took the center stage.

In Europe, the omicron variant has already been detected in the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany. A suspected case has been reported in Austria, and the report is being verified.

New restrictions in UK

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a news conference on Saturday that at least two cases of the omicron variant have been identified in the United Kingdom so far.

"This variant is spreading around the world, with two cases so far identified here in the UK. As always with a new variant, there are many things we just cannot know at this early stage, but scientists are learning more hour by hour," Johnson told reporters in London. "And it does appear that omicron spreads very rapidly, and can be spread between people who are double-vaccinated."

In his words, the virus has undergone extensive mutations, which means that it diverges quite significantly from "previous configurations of the virus."

"And as a result it might, at least in part, reduce the protection of our vaccines over time," the UK premier said.

He announced a series of "targeted and proportionate measures" to stop the virus from spreading, including making face masks mandatory in shops and transport. Besides, all people entering the United Kingdom will be obliged to pass a PCR test and self-isolate until the result is known. It also suspended air service with several African countries.

Winning time

Chief Medical Advisor to the US President and Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci told Politico on Saturday that the omicron variant is spreading faster, but it is yet unclear whether it causes more severe symptoms.

"One thing is clear is that [Omicron] is very transmissible," Fauci said. "The reason you close the borders is to buy you time so you can better prepare and learn more about the variant, its transmissibility, its potential evasion of immune responses, and its seriousness of disease it causes."

"It is conceivable that it is just a very highly transmissible virus that might not have a major impact on the seriousness of infection," the official continued, suggesting that even if individuals contracted the variant, they may not require hospitalization.

When asked whether cases of the omicron infection have already been registered in the United States, Fauci replied: "There’s no evidence that it is here but I would be surprised if it doesn’t ultimately land here."

US regulator recommends vaccination for kids

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the United States issued a recommendation to fully vaccinate all individuals aged five and older in connection with the omicron variant.

"CDC recommends people follow prevention strategies such as wearing a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high community transmission, washing your hands frequently, and physically distancing from others. CDC also recommends that everyone 5 years and older protect themselves from COVID-19 by getting·fully vaccinated. CDC encourages a COVID-19 vaccine booster dose for those who are eligible," the US regulator said in a statement on Saturday.

At the same time, the organization said no cases of the omicron variant have been registered in the country so far.

"No cases of this variant have been identified in the U.S. to date," CDC said. "CDC is continuously monitoring variants and the U.S. variant surveillance system has reliably detected new variants in this country. We expect Omicron to be identified quickly, if it emerges in the U.S."

New strain

On Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated the B.1.1.529 variant as a "Variant of Concern" and assigned it the Greek letter Omicron. It also said that the new variant has "a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning." "Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs," it said.

The data on the new SARS-CoV-2 variant, B.1.1.529, which was identified in the south of Africa, was put on the international database GISAID on November 22.

The WHO expressed concern over reports from South Africa about the rapid spread of the infection in the densely-populated Gauteng province, which may indicate the strain’s high transmissibility. Several countries have suspended air service with South Africa and other countries in the south of Africa.