The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has called for increased vaccination and public health measures to ensure the best possible protection against the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Director Dr Carissa Etienne said while experts work to better understand the new “variant of concern”, as Omicron has been designated by the World Health Organization (WHO), there is no need for people in the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas to panic.
Scientists have said that Omicron is very unusual in that it is by far the most heavily mutated variant yet of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The variant has 50 mutations overall, with 32 mutations on the spike protein —which forms protruding knobs on the outside of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and helps the virus adhere to cells so that it can gain entry alone.
However, Dr Etienne told the weekly PAHO media conference that there are still many unknowns, and studies will take some time to complete. Until then, she said, “it is not clear whether Omicron is more transmissible than other variants, or if it causes more severe disease”.
PAHO said that in the Americas, which reported 753,000 new COVID infections and over 13,000 deaths over the past week, Omicron has so far been detected in the United States, Canada and Brazil.
“But it is likely that other countries will begin seeing this new variant in circulation soon,” Dr Etienne said, noting that while PAHO continues to track all variants in the region, for now Delta remains the predominant variant in the Americas.
Over the past week, COVID-19 cases have accelerated in the Caribbean, PAHO said.
Dr Etienne said with just over half of population in Latin America and the Caribbean fully vaccinated against COVID-19, “our region remains especially vulnerable”, adding “vaccine inequity is prolonging the COVID crisis, and this is exactly what we’re seeing with the arrival of Omicron”.
The Dominican-born PAHO official called on governments to sustain public health measures, such as mask wearing, and redouble their surveillance efforts, noting “the more COVID-19 circulates, the more opportunities the virus has to mutate and change”.
She reminded that COVID-19 is not the first infectious disease that has shaken the world, as she turned her attention to the commemoration of World AIDS Day on December 1 every year.
Prior to the pandemic, PAHO said, just 65 per cent of people living with HIV in the region were receiving ARV therapy and as the pandemic progressed, interruptions increased four-fold, leaving millions at risk.
Dr Etienne said as there are effective drugs that control the disease and interrupt transmission, “we must ensure consistent and equitable access to these powerful tools”.
About 2.4 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean are living with HIV.
PAHO is this week observing its 119th anniversary and Dr Etienne highlighted the progress that has been made in public health in the Americas – in the treatment of HIV/AIDS and in the development of effective vaccines against COVID-19.
“We must work together to finish the job… (so that) everyone in our region has access to the services and tools they need to live healthy and productive lives,” she said.