The International Monetary Fund’s president warned at the Reuters Next conference on Friday that the new Omicron version of the coronavirus is likely to decrease its global economic growth predictions, adding to the chaos caused by the ever-changing epidemic.
According to officials, Omicron has spread swiftly to at least 40 nations since it was first identified in South Africa last week, and several governments have increased travel restrictions to attempt to keep it out.
“A new variety that spreads quickly might impact confidence, and in that sense, we are likely to see some downgrades in our October global growth predictions,” IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva told the conference.
There is still a lot we don’t know about Omicron. Researchers believe it may have acquired genetic material from another virus, maybe one that causes the common cold, allowing it to more readily bypass human immune system defenses.
Parts of Europe and the United States are dealing with an outbreak of the more common Delta strain. The new strain has the potential to significantly destabilize economies that are still recovering from COVID-19-related lockdowns and disruptions.
According to officials, a business Christmas party in the Norwegian capital Oslo resulted in at least 13 illnesses, making it the largest epidemic outside of South Africa.
The World Health Organization’s (WHO) chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan told Reuters Next that the fast-spreading variant would have to become more transmissible to out-compete Delta, which accounts for 99% of current transmissions.
“We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we’re in a different situation to a year ago,” she said.
WHO’s emergencies director Mike Ryan said there was no evidence that existing vaccines needed to be modified to fight Omicron. He said officials should work on getting more people inoculated with vaccines currently on the market.
“We need to focus on getting people most at risk vaccinated,” Ryan said at a social media event.
However, WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a United Nations briefing in Geneva that vaccine makers should prepare for the likelihood of adjusting their products.
Sahin also said current vaccines should continue to provide protection against severe disease, despite mutations.
“I believe in principle at a certain timepoint we will need a new vaccine against this new variant. The question is how urgent it needs to be available,” Sahin said.
WORRYING GAPS IN VACCINATION
Australia became the latest country to report community transmission of the new variant. Officials have found the new strain in 10 U.S. states, adding another challenge to a healthcare system that is already dealing with more COVID-19 illness caused by Delta.
More than 264 million people have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus since it was first detected in central China in late 2019 and 5.49 million people have died, according to a Reuters tally.
Cases in Europe, the pandemic’s current epicenter, crossed the 75 million mark on Friday.
Vaccination rates vary from country to country but there are worrying gaps in poorer nations. Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country and once Asia’s COVID-19 epicenter, has fully inoculated only about 35% of its population.
In the United States, fewer than 60% of the population have been fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates among wealthy nations.
Aside from wreaking havoc in the travel industry, the clampdown has pounded financial markets and undermined major economies just as they were beginning to recover from the lockdowns triggered by Delta.
Germany said it would bar the unvaccinated from all but essential businesses, and legislation to make vaccination mandatory would be drafted for early next year.
Several countries, including Britain and the United States, were bringing forward plans to offer booster shots, but, like travel bans, they are controversial.
Many scientists say the way to stop the virus spreading is to make sure poorer countries have access to vaccines, not to give blanket booster shots to people in richer countries.