Emergence of new coronavirus variants no surprise: WHO Europe official

Headlines 16:09 03 Dec, 2021

Measures being observed for delta variant will be 'really important' for omicron as well, says head of high threat pathogens team

Emergence of new coronavirus variants no surprise: WHO Europe official

The emergence of new coronavirus variants is not a surprise and the global community and the World Health Organization (WHO) are monitoring the situation very closely, a WHO official said.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency in an exclusive interview, Richard Pebody, WHO Europe regional spokesman, said: "Viruses do change over time. As they replicate, as they multiply, mutations happen. And we see it with all viruses, with influenza. That happens with other viruses. So it's not a surprise."

He said the emergence of new variants should not cause panic.

As a "very clear message" to people and governments, Pebody said the vaccination of vulnerable groups should be ensured. He, meanwhile, stressed that physical distance, respiratory and hand hygiene, and wearing of face masks should be followed to reduce the transmission of the virus.

Pebody, who leads the high threat pathogens team at WHO Europe, said the omicron variant of the coronavirus was only reported days ago, but the initial information that the WHO used to assess the virus last week suggested that "there was a possible increased risk of reinfection with this new variant."

Also, there is a large number of mutations of the virus, particularly around what is called the spike protein, which also caused concern, he added.

Vaccines, omicron variant

Responding to a question on the effectiveness of vaccines against the omicron variant, Pebody said "vaccines continue to be a really important intervention that we should be using to prevent severe disease."

The primary purpose, he said, is to prevent hospitalization and deaths.

The current protection has been "good, durable and long-lasting," according to the WHO official. "And when we look at the mutations that there are in this virus, we would continue to anticipate that it will still provide protection against severe disease."

Pebody said there are regions in Europe with a "fantastic" rate of vaccination of the vulnerable population, while some others still see "a very high proportion" of older people and healthcare workers who have not been vaccinated.

"If you're in a vulnerable group, at risk of severe disease, so it's so important that these groups are properly vaccinated so that they're protected," he said, adding the vaccination also helps to cut the spread of the coronavirus and the time it takes to mutate.

'Measures for delta will be really important for omicron as well'

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has erupted almost two years ago, is a long journey yet to be over, said Pebody. "But we know what measures are needed to tackle the pandemic" including vaccination, hygiene rules, social distancing, and the use of masks.

"But it's also important that we overcome the inequities that are recurring within Europe and also obviously globally as well so that we can hopefully get to the end of a pandemic," he added.

Amid the emergence of the new omicron variant, the delta variant is the dominant mutation within the European region, according to Pebody.

"Omicron has really only a very small number of cases at this point within our region. But the same measures that we have in place for delta will be really important for omicron as well. So again, it comes back to the ones I mentioned – vaccination and public health measures."

Answering a question regarding the reported omicron variants detected in the Netherlands in flights from South Africa, Pebody said "this highlights again the importance of ensuring that we've got strong surveillance systems in place to pick up cases of omicron linked to travel."