Geneva/Copenhagen: The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that current Covid-19 vaccines may need to be updated if they are to provide continued protection against emerging variants, including Omicron.
WHO`s Technical Advisory Group on Covid-19 Vaccine Composition (TAG-CO-VAC), a group of 18 experts, on Tuesday said that although current vaccines provide a high level of protection against severe disease and death caused by Variants Of Concern (VOC), future vaccines that can prevent infection and transmission need to be developed.
In the meantime, the composition of current Covid-19 vaccines may need to be updated in order to protect against the evolution of the virus, Xinhua news agency reported.
Such updates need to be based on strains that are genetically and antigenically close to the circulating variants. They should also elicit “broad, strong, and long-lasting” responses in order to “reduce the need for successive booster doses,” WHO added.
The experts have encouraged Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers to provide data on the performance of current and Omicron-specific vaccines, to help decide when changes to vaccine composition may be required.
Regarding the current Omicron variant, the experts emphasised the importance of wider global access to current Covid-19 vaccines.
Omicron wave to hit unvaccinated in Europe: WHO
The WHO’s European Regional Director, Hans Kluge, has warned that the Omicron variant could become more prevalent in Europe as the “tidal wave” of infections spreads eastward.
“I am also deeply concerned that as the variant moves east, we have yet to see its full impact in countries where levels of vaccination uptake are lower. We will see more severe disease in the unvaccinated,” said Kluge on Tuesday.
According to him, the Omicron variant, now spreading into the Balkans, is already present in 50 of the 53 countries in the region spanning Europe and Central Asia. “At this rate, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) forecasts that more than 50 per cent of the population in the region will be infected with Omicron in the next 6 to 8 weeks,” he added.
Kluge said the hospitalisations were rising due to the unprecedented scale of transmissions in the region.
To better manage the coronavirus`s destructive impact on health services, economies and societies, the WHO official called for practical actions, including acting immediately and planning for contingencies, and prioritising response systems during the “closing window of opportunity”.
He also emphasised the importance of protecting the vulnerable and “minimising disruption to health systems and essential services”. The WHO official also urged schools to remain open. “Keeping schools open benefits children`s mental, social and educational well-being significantly. School buildings should be the last to close and the first to reopen,” Kluge added.
Additionally, he outlined his five pandemic stabilising mantras: vaccination, third doses or boosters, increased mask use, ventilation of crowded or enclosed spaces and the continued use of new clinical protocols to guide the response to Delta or Omicron.
And the WHO Europe also said it`s “way off” from treating the Covid-19 as endemic.
“We`re still a way off. Endemicity assumes, first of all, a stable circulation of the virus at predictable levels and potentially known and predictable waves of epidemic transmission,” said Catherine Smallwood, Senior Emergency Services Officer at WHO Europe, when asked about an opinion on Spain`s recent request to the European Union to discuss the possibility of Covid-19 being classified as an endemic illness, similar to the flu or malaria, which is always present in a particular population or region.
“What we`re seeing at the moment coming into 2022 is nowhere near that… We still have a virus that`s evolving quite quickly and posing quite new challenges… and there`s still a lot of unpredictability, ” she added.