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WHO chief scientist urges people not to panic over Omicron

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GENEVA, Dec 3 (Reuters) - The World Health Organization's (WHO) chief scientist told the Reuters Next conference on Friday that people should not panic over the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant and said it was too early to say if vaccines would need to be reworked.

Soumya Swaminathan told the conference that the fast-spreading variant would have to become more transmissible to out-compete the Delta variant, 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.

Swaminathan cited data showing the number of Omicron cases is doubling daily in South Africa, where it was first identified.

Many governments have tightened travel rules to keep the new variant out. read more

Nevertheless, Omicron has been identified in 40 countries, Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a White House briefing. read more

A corporate Christmas party in the Norwegian capital Oslo resulted in at least 13 infections, making it the biggest outbreak outside of South Africa, officials said. read more

Much remains unknown about Omicron. Parts of Europe are grappling with a wave of infections of the more familiar Delta variant.

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 focus 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. read more

Ugur Sahin, CEO of Germany's BioNTech (22UAy.DE), which makes a COVID-19 vaccine with Pfizer (PFE.N), told Reuters Nextthe company should be able to adapt the shots relatively quickly.

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, while Nebraska became the sixth U.S. state to report its presence.

Zimbabwe said it had identified 50 cases and Canada reported 11. read more

Almost 264 million people have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus since it was first detected in central China in late 2019 and 5.48 million people have died, according to a Reuters tally. read more

Cases in Europe, the pandemic's current epicentre, crossed the 75 million mark on Friday. read more

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 epicentre, has fully inoculated only about 35% of its population.

In the United States, the Biden administration has announced measures to guard against the virus spreading. From Monday, international air travellersarriving in the United States will have to have obtained a negative COVID-19 test within a day of travel. read more

Fewer than 60% of the U.S. 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.

Bank of England policymaker Michael Saunders, who voted for an interest rate hike last month, said on Friday he wanted more information about Omicron before deciding how to vote this month.

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. read more

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.

Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Andy Sullivan, Stephen Coates and Nick Macfie; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Grant McCool
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