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Enhancing response to Omicron SARS-CoV-2 variant

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On 26 November 2021, WHO designated the variant B.1.1.529 a variant of concern (VOC), following advice from the WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution. The variant was given the name Omicron. Omicron is a highly divergent variant with a high number of mutations, including 26-32 mutations in the spike protein, some of which are associated with humoral immune escape potential and higher transmissibility. The Omicron variant comprises four lineages including B.1.1.529, BA.1, BA.2 and BA.3.

The overall threat posed by Omicron largely depends on four key questions: (i) how transmissible the variant is; (ii) how well vaccines and prior infection protect against infection, transmission, clinical disease and death; (iii) how virulent the variant is compared to other variants; and (iv) how populations understand these dynamics, perceive risk and follow control measures, including public health and social measures (PHSM).

Based on the currently available evidence, the overall risk related to Omicron remains very high. Omicron has a significant growth advantage over Delta, leading to rapid spread in the community with higher levels of incidence than previously seen in this pandemic. Despite a lower risk of severe disease and death following infection than previous SARS-CoV-2 variants, the very high levels of transmission nevertheless have resulted in significant increases in hospitalization, continue to pose overwhelming demands on health care systems in most countries, and may lead to significant morbidity, particularly in vulnerable populations.

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