Top US pandemic adviser Anthony Fauci warned of a bleak winter ahead as the Omicron coronavirus variant spurs a new wave of infections globally, sparking restrictions and concerns over hospital capacity.
“One thing that’s very clear … is (Omicron’s) extraordinary capability of spreading,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told broadcaster NBC News on Sunday. “It is just … raging through the world.”
Omicron has been found in 77 countries less than one month after it was first officially reported. As it announced that figure last week, the WHO added, “the reality is that omicron is probably in most countries, even if it hasn’t been detected yet.”
Despite some preliminary indications, Omicron is not more severe than the Delta variant – which is still the dominant strain. The heavily-mutated Omicron has been shown in early data to have some resistance to vaccines and higher transmissibility, the American scientist said.
Fauci also cautioned against too much optimism over Omicron’s severity, noting that in South Africa, while the hospitalization-to-case ratio is lower than with Delta, this could be due to the general public’s underlying immunity from widespread previous infections.
Fauci gave the warnings as two US Senators, Democrats Elizabeth Warren, 72, and Cory Booker, 52, said they had tested positive for the virus.
Almost 73% of the entire US population has received at least one Covid vaccination, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So far, almost 30% have had a booster shot.
The latest CDC estimates suggest the Omicron variant accounts for about 3% of current cases in the US, most of which have been recorded in the state of New York.
Lockdowns, travel restrictions due to omicron variant
Countries all over the world are tightening measures as the heavily mutated variant spreads.
In a measure that went into effect on Sunday, travelers to Greece must show a negative rapid test taken within 24 hours of their journey or a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of their trip, before entering the country.
France and Germany are among other European nations to issue travel restrictions and the Netherlands has imposed a strict lockdown over Christmas.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced late Saturday night that all non-essential businesses and services, like restaurants, museums, salons, and gyms, will be closed starting Sunday. They are expected to reopen on January 14. Schools will be closed until January 9.
Omicron equipped to evade the protection of vaccines
A preliminary study published last week indicates that Omicron causes milder disease but is more equipped to evade the protection of vaccines.
The study, which was conducted in South Africa by a private health insurance company, found that patients who tested positive for the omicron variant were hospitalized less often than patients who had other versions of Covid-19.
Although the study is only based on three weeks of data, it clearly indicates that vaccines are less capable of preventing breakthrough infections. Epidemiologists have stressed that waiting a few more weeks will provide a much stronger data pool, as Omicron has not become fully dominant yet and only a fraction of people with the variant have become sick enough to be hospitalized.