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World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Geneva, Switzerland, October 18 2021. Picture: FABRICE COFFRINI/REUTERS
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Geneva, Switzerland, October 18 2021. Picture: FABRICE COFFRINI/REUTERS

Geneva  — Covid-19 vaccines appear slightly less effective in preventing severe disease and death but do provide significant protection, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday.

The Omicron variant first detected in SA and Hong Kong in November  has now been reported by 77 countries and is probably present in most worldwide, but should not be dismissed as “mild”, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

“Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant,” Tedros told an online briefing. “Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems.

“Evolving evidence suggests a small decline in the effectiveness of vaccines against severe disease and death, and a decline in preventing mild disease or infection,” he said without giving specifics.

Mike Ryan, WHO’s emergencies director, said that the Pfizer vaccines are not failing and do provide some protection and that data suggested they provide significant protection against severe disease and death against Omicron.

He said the peak of this wave of infections remains “a number of weeks” away given the very rapid spread of the Omicron variant, which has outpaced the dominant global strain Delta.

Vaccine booster shots can play a role in curbing the spread of Covid-19 as long as people most in need of protection also get access to jabs, Tedros said.

“It’s a question of prioritisation. The order matters. Giving boosters to groups at low risk of severe disease or death simply endangers the lives of those at high risk who are still waiting for their primary doses because of supply constraints.

“On the other hand, giving additional doses to people at high risk can save more lives than giving primary doses to those at low risk,” he said.

Tedros noted that the emergence of Omicron had prompted some countries to roll out Covid-19 booster programmes for their entire adult populations, even while researchers lack evidence for the efficacy of boosters against this variant.

“WHO is concerned that such programmes will repeat the vaccine hoarding we saw this year, and exacerbate inequity,” he said.


Johns Hopkins's Dr Amesh Adalja discusses the ability of Pfizer’s experimental Covid pill to reduce hospitalisations and the usefulness of boosters in fighting the Omicron variant.


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